Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Is Everyone's First Job Now Public Relations?

Since I write a blog, I get an amazing number of PR emails. I get emails about books, research findings, new movies, and things like that, but often it's more of a vague invitation to interview a person or write about a thing so people will pay attention to it. For example, I recently got an email line with the subject heading "55% of Sugar daters prefer to meet over coffee for the first date." It's a bit of information, an invitation for an interview, all in the service of publicizing a service for I won't name here since that would be, in effect, providing public relations. These emails are all from senders like "Brianna Smith," PR coordinator for "XYZ media."

I used to be amazed that it was worth the while of so many people to seek out PR from this minor blogger. I know it's all automated, but someone has to click through to my website to find my email address. But as time went on I realized: PR is now everything. PR is getting people interesting enough in your thing so you can do your thing. PR is getting people on board with your start up so you can make a company. PR is getting your side out there, as Amazon did recently when people on Twitter said they should pay their employees more ("No, we're very well-paid," someone was paid to say).

I know PR has always been sort of the essence of capitalism. If you've read Trollope's great Victorian novel "The Way We Live Now," you know that hype has been the linchpin of economic activity for a long time. The novel tells the story of a huge finance boon-doggle in which rich guy August Melmotte uses schemes to increase the share price for a massive railway project -- a project that no one ever really intends to complete, but that everyone wants to profit on through the manipulation of other people's beliefs. It's all a big PR job.


But for a range of complicated reasons, I feel like PR has seeped into everything. Enrollment in the humanities is down, despite the fact that why people believe what they believe has become the main question of the early 21st century -- and despite the fact that employers say that communication and cooperation skills are the skills people need for modern jobs. Everywhere I turn, I hear that we need to do better at PR: Philosophy needs to tell its story, humanities needs to explain and justify itself more effectively, courses need to be advertised, everyone needs to court their alums to give money, so we're not dependent on the money we get from servicing our customers -- that is, from teaching our students.

Now, it feels like it's not only that the goods of a system that have to be advertised, but even the role that a particular person or part plays in the system. Instead of just competition among systems, it's that systems themselves are increasingly based on competition. For example, it used to be that the book industry worked on the concept that a publishing house would have an array of kinds of titles, and they would use the established success of some titles to support the work of less-known authors. Sure, publishing houses competed with one another, but with a house, you could have some judgment calls. Now it just feels like it's just every individual person is evaluated based on their immediate prospect for money-making, so the competition has seeped down, and everyone has to do PR, to convince other people that the thing they're doing is the hip new thing.

At an individual level, as we've discussed before, with the "entrepreneurial self," everyone has to be their own PR person, and whether you are likable has a profound effect on your prospects in life. Likability acts as a conduit for other forms of discrimination like racism and sexism, but it has a dimension all its own: if you're just kind of an unlikeable person, well, too bad for you.

I don't mind doing a bit of PR. But it can't take over everything. How can you have a thing, if all your time is spent on advertising?

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The World Is Ending. What Should I Wear?

Since a young age, I've had a keen sense of living in a radically screwed up and unjust world. I remember when I learned in elementary school about the American enslavement of people from Africa, about killings in war, about the brutal genocide of Native Americans, and about the likelihood we were all going to die in nuclear war, and I was like Gee we are fucked up. I'm not saying I understood the proper range of things -- I was a white kid in the US suburbs -- just that I knew things were deeply not OK.

When I was a young adult, you would have known from just looking at me that I felt this way. My self-presentation was ... weird. I guess style-wise it was mostly a mix between punk and something like goth, but it was more non-conformist than that. My clothes from the thrift store were often shabby and falling apart. I wore boots with my summer dresses, which for some reason drove people crazy. I let my hair become knotted into permanent tangles -- not like dreads, but like just a person who doesn't brush her hair. I had a lot of piercings, before that became a normal thing.

Looking back on my arrival at philosophy PhD school years later, one mentor said, "Well -- we thought you were really out there."

Over the years since, my self-presentation has become much more conformist. For one thing, I found that teaching undergraduates pushed me way toward conformism. There are many things that make teaching stressful and anxiety-producing, and for me one of them has to do with relating to a pretty wide range of people. I've never been that popular person, I'm not an extrovert, and the things that interest me often don't interest other people (and vice-versa!). Navigating the student-teacher relationship alongside the complexities of self-presentation non-conformism is too emotionally complicated for me.

Another pressure toward conformity has to do with my relationship to femininity and the way that changes with getting older. I've always been somewhat a girly-girl, and I love dresses and feminine clothes. Some of my earliest memories involve trying to talk my mother into buying me various skirts and cute crop-tops and heels -- her style of feminism pushing hard in the direction of denim and "clothes you can do things in."

It's one thing to be both girly and non-conformist when you're young, but I feel like it gets complicated when you get older. I'm a professor, but sometimes when I'm not "dressed up," strangers ask "Are you a student?" I know, whatever, but it gets annoying. Plus, it's easy to look good when you're young, even if you're wearing weird clothes, because duh -- young people are cute. Not so easy as time goes on.

Now that I look more conformist, though, it's disturbing to me that people might look at me and think that I'm a happy part of the system, or that I think things are mostly just peachy, or that I'm optimistic about the future. As time has gone on, I feel like more people now share the feelings I had back in the 1980s, that things are radically not-OK, and maybe I'm also more aware of people who feel this way. Racism and police brutality continue to be outrageous. Workers in the US need to earn $22.10 per hour to afford to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment; according to Forbes, the median US hourly wage is $16.71. Looming climate change has made dystopianism a mainstream mood. It's not just for goths anymore.

Whenever I'm on this train of thought, at some point I think to myself: why are you thinking about self-presentation, when action is what matters? Isn't it silly to be worrying about how you look, when what matters is what you do?

But I think they both matter. Years ago a student came up and asked me something about a slightly non-conformist thing, and I was like "of course!" and she was like "well, I didn't know, because you you look so normal." And I was like "Hmmmm." Plus, in our Instagramish age, where everything has to come with a photo, self-presentation has become a central form of communication. 

I'm not really sure what would be next. On the one hand, I hardly wear makeup, and I don't dye my grey hair, and it's a measure of how bizarre the world is that these things really are seen as non-conformist. But on the other hand, I'd like to do more. Maybe I should learn to sew and start wearing jeans with brightly colored fringe. Maybe I should put sparkles on everything I own. Maybe I should become that kind of ultra-femme who transcends conformist femininity. Maybe I should start wearing only sports-wear -- which would be conformist for some people, but pretty non-conformist for a woman in academia. Obviously, I don't have an answer or a plan, and hence the question of the title is really a question. The world is ending. What should I wear?

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Anthony Trollope And The Texture Of Human Unhappiness

As you may know, I am a fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope. For those of you who aren't Victorian-novel-enthusiasts, Trollope was a contemporary of Dickens -- and, in certain respects, sort of an anti-Dickens. Partly because of the political overtones of their differences, Dickens is far the more popular writer these days. And I get that. But I still think we need Trollope.

Dickens and Trollope are different in topic and style. Topic-wise, Dickens's books often feature poor and lower-class characters, and often have a sort of point to make about them. The poor are downtrodden; they are noble and worthy; they deserve better treatment. Trollope's books feature aristocrats, and they focus on family, money, and politics. Who will marry? Who will inherit? Who will prosper?

Style-wise, Dickens's books are often humorous, and I hope I'm being fair to Dickens when I say that they feature characters who are painted in vivid and simple colors. Good people. Bad people. Angry people. Grateful people. Trollope's books, on the other hand, are psychologically realistic and, as a result, full of ambiguity. There are people who are kind but also weak. People who are loving but also scheming. People who are torn between their commitments and their longings and, like all of us, bumble through as best they can.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Trollope's books were so realistic, they were "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of." Trollope's books are so realistic that even though Trollope himself was sort of an anti-feminist, the books are plausibly feminist: they are full of complex, multifaceted female characters who think and reflect, act on their own internal motivations, accomplish a wide variety of things, and often bridle at the limits of their social roles. It's like Trollope found himself forced to tell the truth about women's inner lives and social status -- even when that conflicted with his beliefs.

So part of Trollope's unpopularity is the potentially suspect nature of writing only about rich British people. It's also that Trollope's topics are seen as soap-opera-ish and light. And Trollope's reputation took a hit when it was revealed that he made himself write a certain number of lines every morning -- for most of his life, every morning before starting his day job working for the postal service. This seemed to people unserious, workmanlike, and not consistent with literary genius.

I feel these views of Trollope are unjust, but I don't spend a lot of time talking and thinking about it. I mean, we're hardly lacking for stories about rich British people. But Trollope was on my mind recently as I was thinking recently about our bizarre cultural climate.


One thing I feel we learn from Trollope's books is the vast range of misery-sources that have nothing to do with money and social status. You can have money, status, even servants, and still feel not only unhappy but also cruelly shafted out of the good things in life. Maybe you're oafish or unattractive to others. Maybe you're a figure of fun. Maybe the person you love doesn't love you back. Maybe you're inextricably attached to someone who is driving you crazy. Maybe you devoted your life to a project that the world, moving on, decided was pointless. Maybe your life is predictable and dull. Maybe, despite -- or because of! -- your privileged life, you just can't get your shit together. 

I think this lesson is crucially important. First, it's important to know for yourself, so you can think about your life. Yes, you need a certain amount of money and social status to live. But more of those things is not a ticket to happiness, and neither is anything else, really. Instead of trying to get to misery-elimination, why not aim lower? Misery-management is, perhaps, a more appropriate goal.

I don't know if you remember when the DVD of Sesame Street was first issued, and it came with a warning: "These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child." Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan wrote that "People on 'Sesame Street had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you 'out' of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, 'Sesame Street' suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off -- taking baths, eating cookies, reading."

An era in which we're constantly told to live our best life and be thrilled about it could use this kind of acknowledgement of the basic principle-of-conservation-of-unhappiness.

A second reason we need to be reminded that people can have money and social status and still feel miserable and shafted is that these days, a lot of people with money and social status feel miserable and shafted. And sometimes because of this, they're making a certain amount trouble for the rest of us.

I'm not saying "oh boo-hoo for them" and I'm not saying "oh the poor rich people" and I'm not saying "oh, we should care more about rich people's problems." It's more like: we should remember, as we think about human nature and how we're all going to live together, that this is, in fact, a thing.

I'd never deny that books should give us insight into the lives of others and that -- duh -- when those lives are only those of British aristocrats, something has gone off the rails. But with all the stories and narratives out there, I hope we can make some room for the Trollopes of the world.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

No Post Because Chairing

Those of you who know me know that I became chair of my academic department in July. It's fine, but it's hard to combine with blogging, and this week I got nothing. Hope you are enjoying August and I'll see you next week!