I seemed to recognize intuitively as a child that the idea of working for a living—like, selling one’s labor to make some product for some company that will appropriate your labor and sell whatever you’ve produced for even more to a consumer that ostensively wants to purchase said product only because they’ve been programmed by the ideology-reproducing culture industry to believe that they need said product for comfort, status, whatever—was pretty damned stupid. I wasn’t a bad student and, in fact, seemed pretty bright. Still, I was already disillusioned growing up in middle America by the time I was twelve years old. Toward the end of high school, when other people in my grade were applying for schools to go into business and communications, I decided to go to the local university for applied music. To become a saxophonist and assuming that was some real kind of job or something.
After having some moderate success as a working musician throughout my twenties (there are a million guys that can play better than me, but I show up on time and look ok in a suit) I was growing weary of the instrumentalized role of musician in society. Playing background music for rich people that had succeeded in that economic structure I’d adroitly recognized and bowed out of before high school had even started was looking like a crap way to make a living for the rest of my life (and made me complicit in that economic structure I’d hoped to evade). Even worse is the idea of teaching other young people, helping them to grow their artistic faculties for a dream of creative freedom that in reality would be subsumed into the greater economy of good and services. “How many pounds of music can I get for $50 on a Friday night?” asks the business man (or his assistant) planning a party. Music isn’t quantified this way. At least it shouldn’t be. There is no commoditization of artistic labor that makes sense in an economy based on exchange rates, no matter how imaginary.
By my late twenties I decided to flee from this economic reality and the life it was spreading out for me into what I hoped would be a Shangri-La of the vita contemplativa removed from the exigencies of the economy as already twice noted. Now in the final stages of a terminal degree I recognize that the manufacture of consent, the instrumentalization of reason for the reproduction of a status quo that increases the bottom line of those that hold the means of production by way of the exploited labor of the worker, is everywhere in the world of higher education. My students don’t want to learn, they want to pass. They want a piece of paper that allows them entrance into a world where they can be workers (highly trained and specialized workers with expensive degrees) in an economic reality that offers them a paycheck and access to objects and purchased experiences that will gloss their lives with a sheen of perceived value. Their degrees-as-commodities allow them to be joyfully complicit in the cycles of exploitation, appropriation, inequitable representation, and systemic racism upon which America depends to maintain its “dominance” on an international stage that increasingly sees it as bloated, ignorant, violent, and a caricature of the representative democracy it claims to be.
Even in the academy, as a teacher I am expected to offer a product and not to create an environment for phronetic reason, for criticism, for the heuristic trying-on of ways of being. Rather I am charged with setting up an authorized account of history, right and wrong answers, neatly packaged taxonomies of cultural products safely neutered by language to be leverage-able commodities in the greater marketplace.
The only way to do this genuinely is from a place of willful informed naiveté, an optimistic and solopsistic assertion that (like the messianic teachers in Mr Holland’s Opus or Dead Poet’s Society) I too will reach the hearts of a few individuals. And against all odds, this will make a tiny dent in the ideologically inscribed realities they live out. Or perhaps, in recognizing my incredibly privileged position in the neo-liberalist globalized information economy characteristic of late-late-capitalism, I’ll resign myself to my position as the counter-ideological, over-educated, hyper-privileged white male at dinner parties pleased with myself to, in my self-loathing, expose the fetid realities we perpetuate until we either do something to change it or dig ourselves ever deeper while waiting to cash in on our retirement. My optimism is waning most days as is my willingness to embrace my position in the status-quo. Still, my position as Animal Laborans in the academy is perhaps better than elsewhere as it is at least tolerated. And maybe, just maybe, can lead to flashes of rupture of the fabric of the status quo into a world of real Arendt-ian political engagement with the worldviews of others with an aim to create a world more equitable and representative of the plurality of being. Maybe I can sometimes inhabit the role of Homo politicus, or on even better days, Homo poetica. That’s the one. Homo poetica - “meaning maker”, poet, artist. That’s the ideal.
I do love teaching. I do. And my students are good people doing their best in a broken system they inherited and are forced to perpetuate. Not their fault. We do, it seems, need the ideology-rupturing power of countercultural artworks now as much as ever to mediate the totality of instrumentalized reason as it's currently set up to maintain unequal distributions of wealth and systematized oppression.
Make art. If you don't make art, seek it out and support it.
Apologies for the rant, thanks for reading.