I was Literally not Going to Write This Post Today

If I read/hear the word “literally” used to draw emphasis to a phenomenon, my head is literally going to explode.

Alright, you have probably heard the trite use of the word “literally” endorsed from celebrities and rock stars, to journalists and media moguls; but I think it is time to stand up and reconsider the use of the word literally as a way to emphasis and clarify our reliance on clichés and metaphors.

I wasn’t going to write a post about this topic. In fact, I have been jotting down a list of chapter ideas for a non-fiction book regarding the use of popularly accepted idioms such as “like,” “really,” and so forth in order to, perhaps, start a new blog. I firmly think that these words betray something unique about our experience in this world as it is right now. I think it betrays what Jean-François Lyotard first named the “Postmodern Condition” in which all of our experiences are kept at a relative distance form ourselves—obviously I am oversimplifying for the sake of brevity, but you get the point.

In an earlier post, I analyzed the use of the word “like” as a part of speech that frames actions, happenings, occurrences and experiences in a way that keeps those phenomena at a distance from our own lives. So much so that we must then use hyperbolic words such as “really” and “seriously” to bring that simulated experience (the “like”) closer to us.

Here is an example from my post:

Bill: “What’s up? What did you do today?”
Gill: “Oh, nothing much. We, you know, like, threw the football around a bit. Man, once, Lill threw it really hard and I had to run superfast to, like, just catch it, you know?! That was crazy.”

It comes down to our basic social function in this world: communicating our experiences and lives to another human being. But if we cannot grasp the fundamental description of life experiences that happen to our own person, then we will find a way to make up for that, let’s call it, gap in proximity or happening.

My point of focus today is the word “literally,” and I think it fulfills three social functions:

  1. It acknowledges the trite overuse—and universal knowledge of this overuse—of a cliché and amends its overuse by attempting to make the cliché a real occurrence.
  2. It removes the abstract object of metaphor (a comparison without using “like” or “as”), and replaces it with a real thing.
  3. It makes the experience closer, more alive, more Real, more True.

Okay, I literally just went to The Atlantic Monthly‘s website and scanned four articles for the word “literally”. I found one use of it in the comment section (yes, it aids my point). So, let’s dissect his or her’s little sentence with and without the word “literally”

“So the point is, you literally *cannot* escape at this point”
“So the point is, you *cannot* escape at this point”

The commenter is discussing Google, Facebook and Technologies hold on our lives. Yes, yes, it’s horrible—he types across a wi-fi network. The author’s point is that we cannot escape from technology. So, why is he or she using the word literally? The sentence functions perfectly without it, right? Well, kind of.

TechThe author is using an absolute idea. To his or her absolutist point: you cannot escape technology. Well, but, you probably can. There is no way for this author to account for all cases of occurrences where someone attempted to escape the Internet’s grasp and succeeded. Because, let’s face it, no one has that knowledge. It’s impossible to know. In our postcolonial era, claiming that you have absolute knowledge is a logical fallacy, and this author is aware of that fallacy. So, what the author does is place the word “literally” in front of the fallacy in order to emphasize the absolutism of the word “*cannot*”. The irony is that the use of the word “literally” implies that the author cannot prove this fact, so without the word “literally” the sentence becomes closer to a type of Truth.

Here is my final argument: it is not that the sentence needs the word “literally” to emphasize the absolutism; rather, it is that the reader needs the word “literally” to verify and communicate something unique to our time and space. As far as I’m concerned that intangible thing that the reader needs is capitalized Truth. And Truth over the Internet is very, very, really, super-hard to come by because it is unverifiable. Truth over the Internet is intangible. It is the very thing that we are seeking when we type “How do I…” on Google, but then scan three sources before believing the top result.

Sure, this could be simple cynicism and mistrust of knowledge, but I am not about to write off the social predominance of the word “literally” by news media corporations, pundits, documentary film makers, learned individuals, and average Americans. It cannot be that simple.

So, I ask you to aid me in my quest for Truth, and let’s reconsider our use of the word “literally” before we speak or write. Hmmmm, I didn’t even discuss the use of metaphor vs. literally, but that’s for a different post.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

(Edited: To add to my point, I found this a few minutes ago by one of my favorite writers, Derek Thompson: “That other websites don’t do this, or (less likely, but possibly) literally cannot afford to pay writers anything is unfortunate, but it is much more complex than gross exploitation”. Sheesh. “Literally” is literally everywhere!)


Literary Lessons: What I learned from the axe-wielding murderer, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

The End

In a recent post, I reviewed Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, which I added to my list of “profoundly impacting novels“. A commenter on this post, one Peter Galen Massey, remarked my inclination toward rather, uhm, “unstable” characters. One such character is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. This got me thinking—navel gazing, of course, of which I am want to do while whistling away at work—and my thoughts lingered first on why am I attracted to these more reckless characters? and, furthermore, what does this reveal about my own character?

Once I came to the conclusion that I don’t revere Raskolnikov for his axe-wielding abilities, I set out to undertake an explanation as to why nearly every other year I come back to such a large and engrossing novel, such as Crime and Punishment. But to explain this phenomenon, I have to quickly summarize C & P. Alright, here it goes.

The novel is a reverse crime novel, i.e. we know who dunnit. In fact, we are privy to the murderer’s thoughts and actions both before and after the deed is done. There are six parts of the novel, and the first part is the murder. The rest is how Raskolnikov atones for this murder. Along the way there are some amazingly beautiful characters (including the Marmeladov family—who were actually the basis for the original novel of C & P, entitled The Drunkards—, Raskolnikov’s buddy Dmitri Razumikhin, and Porfiry Petrovich, to name just a few). Raskolnikov is a poor law student, and happens to follow a bit of Nihlism that is popping up around St. Petersburg at the time—Russian Nihlism, German Nihlism‘s uglier, angrier, and drunker sibling. Raskolnikov murders a pawn broker, Alyona Ivanovna, whom he has convinced himself, after hearing a conversation in a bar, is worthless and that the world would be better without her in it.

The first portion is Rodya not only plotting the murder, but convincing himself that it is okay. Now, here’s where the book becomes something more than just a run-of-the-mill, mystery-thriller-dime-store-novel stuff. CSI does this stuff to death, right? (excuse the pun): someone is murdered, and they have to find not only the killer, but his/her motive as well. Well, here’s the deal with Dostoevsky: we get to actually watch and imagine Rodya justifying murder—an act no normal individual can reasonably justify. Yes, murders are everywhere. Go ahead, turn on CNN, I’ll wait… but being inside the thoughts of someone who is convincing himself that murder is permissible is absolutely insane. It is raw, ugly existentialism.

Stuttgart StrasseSo, what I learned from Raskolnikov is that one must justify ones actions to two sets of peoples. First there is yourself. You simply must justify yourself each and every day you exist. And most of you, and me, have a preexisting justification for our daily lives. For example, why we eat bacon, why we wear jeans, why we take 10 minute showers, etc. The next set of peoples are the society in which you live. There are laws, both subtle and pronounced, for which each of is responsible for the sake of a peaceful existence. Such as, Thou shalt not steal, murder, worship false idols, and stopping at red lights, paying taxes for wars we protest, pirating music, etc. The weird (and beautiful) part is that both of these conditional clauses are dependent upon environment. In example, let’s say, in Germany, jaywalking is a huge no-no, but it is mostly enforced by social conditions. Whereas in New York, jaywalking is a part of the environment and one can and will justify their right to jaywalk with the proverbial, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” This response would not fly in Deutschland.

What is unique about Raskolnikov is that he overcame the most important person who kept telling him no: himself. Once he overcame that… well, that’s only the first part.

The rest of the novel is whether this “overcoming of self” is justifiable within societal norms, laws, and customs. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Rodya confesses in a populated square in the middle of St. Petersburg after an interesting scene where Sonya Marmeladov reads the story of Lazarus to him. And another scene where he confesses to the police, but they don’t believe him! (Ugh, that is a tough one to read). It should be no surprise that Christianity is impetus for Raskolnikov’s confession. It is personal guilt that eventually overcomes him, and guilt is the driving force behind Roman Catholicism, not to mention Christianity as a whole. Suffering is purposeful and personal for Raskolnikov. But atonement is not only personal, it is societal—which is why his confession is performed in a public square. Raskolnikov has overcome personal guilt to become this übermensch, or so at least he thinks (what is ultimately played out in C & P, is that the übermensch is an impossibility, if not a strict rarity, because of civilized norms).

The point is that all of this, all of this life, needs justification. It needs, nay requires, a reason. Not just breaking the law, but adhering to it as well. And it is not only oneself that one must reason into submission, it is also you and everyone reading this blog. And everyone driving on the road. And everyone on the subway staring into their new iPhone 5s. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to explain to people that each of us justifies our lives and actions in some way, shape, or form. Most people do NOT want to hear that their actions are conditional responses based upon profound and unfathomably numerous cultural signals and cues. Most people want to hear that each and every time they do something, it is a result of a choice. A rational choice plucked from the blooming flower of infallible logic. But that was Dostoevsky’s point! He thought that man was irrational! Such was the basis for existentialism. In fact, Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, is a philosophical response in favor of irrationality against Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What is to be Done?

Boston CrowdI read Crime and Punishment and understand millionaires. I understand their wanting more. I understand crooked criminals. I understand the bribers and the bribed. I understand the takers and the givers, the makers and the destroyers. Because each and every one of them has justified their existence and their actions. Whether it be purchasing sliced bread or a new bed, each and every single one of us justifies our actions so that we can sleep at night—with full stomachs and on soft sheets.

I hope that I am not misunderstood in this post. And I hope that we can all learn something “good” from Raskolnikov. What we should learn is that we are all here for one another. No one exists alone. Not even Raskolnikov, not even the übermensch, not even the genius or the tyrant, the hero or the villain, the thief or the prosecutor. We are all responsible for the well being of one another. So, thank you for my well being, dear readers. I am truly thankful for yours.

The Croatian Communion of Cookies and Coffee

They smuggled cookies everywhere, like children sneaking JuJuBees into a movie theater within the lining of their jackets.

During my last visit, her parents brought a package of cookies to a mountain top cafe where we opened them quietly while the Fraulein was in the kitchen watching for our Café au laits and macchiatos. The restaurant provided cookies. They were individually wrapped, laying leisurely on the saucer, and shaped like spoons to better scoop our cappuccino foam, but it was so impersonal. So individual. Those German wafers were held singularly in captivity, annexed from the true communal nature of their existence. And so they stayed that way throughout our respite.

MountainMaybe it was a survival strategy, or perhaps it was culture, but those cookies that the cafe provided always found their way into her and her mother’s stylish Croatian purses. They were rescued refugees, just like their now owners, and deserved a good home with friends and family to support their struggle for freedom.

Later on, I would recognize those mountain top wafers looking comfortable, yet a bit apprehensive, on the porcelain plate that came out of the fridge during our coffee conversations. Now, finally out of their plastic coffins, they were free to live with their fellow cookie, joyously preoccupied with idle conversation and gossip, exempt of the existential knowledge of their basic function: to be eaten.

I never quite grasped eating cookies and coffee after climbing a mountain. I thirsted for water, Powerade, Gatorade, something that would aid me in my climb, something that Michael Jordan endorsed. Something that promised the replenishment of my electrolytes. So I sat at the cafe sweltering in the tight mountain air, that much closer to the sun, sipping coffee and lightly snacking on the orange chocolate wafers that supposedly bridged the language gap between all of us.

Because of all this, now I crave sugary confections with my coffee. I search through the empty spaces of cupboards. I peer in pantries. I open the fridge, hoping that a cookie has miraculously appeared during my absence.

Cupboard, pantry, fridge. Cupboard, pantry fridge.

Sometimes I vary the routine, but it still yields the same result. The very definition of insanity. It didn’t used to be this way. I took my coffee with cream. No sugar. Half & Half. Breve. But I stayed far away from sugary morsels that usually accompanied coffee to the tables of bourgeois homes.

At her parent’s home—after the soup, salad, and meat course, each course with its own set of dishes and silverware—we had coffee.

Small, white porcelain cups with gold etching encircling the rim would escape the small dishwasher along with their matching saucer, but for only a moment to be used and immediately shoved back in once the discussion dried up. They were the unfortunate ones that barely saw the light of day.

As for the lucky ones, first there was the shiny, metal cream dispenser that sat in the fridge perpetually full, as though magic had replenished it. The only sign of use a slight drip languidly trailing down its spout, or the surfacing and eventual receding of condensation as it was lifted from its natural home within the chilled refrigerator and out into the open Swabian June air.

The other fortunate son was the cookie plate. It was white with blue, sometimes maroon, etching that showed a distant farmhouse of what may have been a Croatian or Bosnian countryside. It looked breakable. As though one more cookie heaved on its lightness would bring it down with a smash on the table. But it never did.

Bday CakeThe chilled plate contained at the very least three variations of sweets, which, like the cream, were replenished through either magic or a craft of secrecy that no guest would, could or should ever puncture for the very lack of decency that knowing might betray. These cookies never failed to appear whenever or wherever coffee was served.

And we endlessly drank coffee. The coffee-stained, glass pot in their kitchen was kept warm throughout the morning, but one never drank coffee alone. It had other functions than fuel for individual achievements. It prodded discussions. It cajoled tears and remembrances. It told our futures.

Like the day before I flew home from Stuttgart airport to Minneapolis, I was the last one to empty the coffee pot at 9pm at night. Her mother smiled at me a smile that squished her eyes and tightened her lips, and then she said in a broken English mixture of Croatian, Bosnian and German accents that now it will be my turn to host.

A flood of images and lingering questions corrupted me: how will I get these people to Minnesota? Where will they stay? How will our families communicate? My mother is infamous for her passive aggressive nervousness and judgmental facial expressions, and her mother’s overbearing nature crams the air with an anxious eagerness that bemoans the fortunes and struggles of two piqued immigrant refugee daughters who no longer need her; and not one son, nor the promise of a grandson, to delightfully and thanklessly devour her food or drink her drink.

WineThat favor, and slight responsibility, fell upon me. And drink I did:

One shot of home-made plum Slavonian vodka before eating.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One glass seltzer water during dinner.

One more shot of home-made plum vodka before the main course.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One cup of coffee. Cream. No sugar. With cookies and cakes for dessert.

One German bier with her father after the table is cleared, with salted snacks emerging from cupboards.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

One more German bier, if her father was feeling talkative.

“Živjeli. Prost. Cheers.”

I have been spoiled by the attentiveness of a mother whose only heterosexual daughter has brought home a boyfriend from across the Atlantic Ocean. The first boyfriend they have had the pleasure of hosting and being introduced to in over a decade. The pressure was grand. It was bulky. Fat, yet dexterous.

It tied our tongues. It spoke up in between the silences or the lost moments of translation. It coughed when I nodded in agreement to a word or phrase I did not understand. And it eventually wore her and her parents out.

They would have liked my coffee. I make it four cups at a time in a metal, double-lined coffee press. I ground it one pound at a time and kept it in an airtight container. I would have had snacks ready. Confections of the American breed. Oreos, perhaps. Sugar cubes for her and her father.

I could imagine hearing the dismissal of apologies for mismatched coffee mugs while I poured. A lingering disapproval as I offered cream from the Land O’ Lakes container. The subtle noise the plastic flap the Oreo cookie wrapping made each time we wanted one would be like a siren warning us that something isn’t quite right. Something is mismatched. One of these things is not like the other.

But that moment never arrived.

So, now I’ll continue my search for cookies, and pour myself another cup of coffee while I write about a distant land and a distant way of life. A life without the constant hum of American television, or the hopelessly forlorn pride of single parents, or an inharmonious collection of dishes that betray an utter unpreparedness for guests, or the clenched beauty of traditions that are to be cherished and passed on with force against reluctance.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and consider what I’ve gained and what I have lost.

I’ll pour myself another cup of coffee, and ruminate on how my past informs my future.

But first, just to make sure there are no cookies, I’ll check the pantry again.

The Exclamation Point and The Rorschach Test

I have a fatal cyber flaw: I cannot grasp internet sarcasm. I am now wondering if this makes me old (read: unhip), or whether this makes me just not quite cut out for the Internet (capital “I”). Either way, I blame the exclamation point!

errors!Did I just yell? Did I laugh? Was I angry? You will never know. There must be some level of exclamatory congruity brewing across this great cybersphere; there must be some level of mutual understanding: “yes, the exclamation point means this, this or this, depending on the context.” Obviously, it is emphasis of some sort, right? Yes. Ok? Agreed. But! (Interjection) Here is the real crux: I just presume everyone on the internet is being genuine. Sheesh. That was like an AA meeting:

“Hi, my name is Shawn, and I presume all people on the internet are genuine.”
Let’s all welcome Shawn: “Hi Shawn!”

Damnit! What just happened there? Were they excited to greet me? Are they angry with me? Does that (!) emphasize their voices in unison? Oh, man! (Crap…) There it is again. That last time I think it signifies consternation, but I cannot be sure. Although, now I think we are getting to the bottom of this (!) mystery: the signifier. Oh, that slippery signifier. I would like to thank Jacques Lacan and Ferdinand de Saussure (two people I will NOT be naming my unborn sons after!) for this mysterious signifier; this tender, unreliable thing that invokes and evokes meaning of a unique thing to each and every individual and conjures up images of unique things and memories that tangle (and tango) with other memories, colors, smells, making us unique in our (physique) ambitions, talents, thoughts, actions and desires. Sheesh. Signifier. How ’bout a demonstration?

(I read that last paragraph and think of loveable, furry, old Grover. Remember him? Blue. Monstrous. Real skinny. Flailed his arms a lot. Wandered around Sesame Street. Unassuming. Loves words, letters, soup. Dressing up as a waiter, superhero, cowboy, etc. He had this frequent skit where he would be discussing a thing, say an (!), and that thing, say an orange, foam, 2-foot tall (!) with a little black wire near the bottom that I started to only notice later on in my childhood, would just pop up while he was discussing it. The cool part is that Grover was completely surprised! He was all like, “AAAHHH!!! (Grover yelled a lot, not in a frightening way) WHAT is this thing!?!?!” And then it would go away. He would begin talking about it again, and then BLAAM! The foam (!) would show up! Right in the middle of him talking about the actual thing! Talk about your return of the repressed! Crazy. Anyhooo. Where was I?)

(Oh yeah!) What have we learned? So, the (!) means different things to different people: signifier. And I assume you are all being genuine (you nice folks, you). What is left? Oh, ugh, another confession: I write blog posts either smiling, slightly laughing, or convincing myself that something that does not appear funny actually is funny. Not in a mad-scientist-y way. No. More like a: “Shawn, you are hilarious!”-type of way. Which leads me to my next point: I blame the exclamation point because it tells us about ourselves.

Mr. Johnson (Sesame Street)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The exclamation point is our very own Rorschach test: it reveals to us exactly what we want to see. When I come across an exclamation point in an internet comment, I usually see happiness, laughter, humor, an interjection, or surprise. I cannot locate cynicism. I do not read it. And I do not speak it. I feel as though I need an (*) for every time I use a (!), just to make sure that the commenter believes that I too am genuine. As though I need to convince them ever so desperately, “Listen! I mean it! I truly do! It is not sarcasm!!!” I want them to see my ink blot. My Rorschach. I also want them to see loveable, furry, old Grover perhaps repeatedly attempting to serve a bowl of hot alphabet soup during a windstorm to this other dapper, blue fellow who always yells “Ohhhh, waiter!” with lips hidden behind a glorious, old-school mustache as an obvious signifier of sophistication and learning and the antithesis to Grover’s unkempt, shaggy blue hair, inept social skills, abhorrence of any and all contractions, and inability to secure steady employment leading him to later adopt a schizophrenic, Quixotic personality and dawn a billowing, red cape and an often faulty, metal helmet so that he may be better rescue precious kittens from trees and us from ultimately misunderstanding (!). Whew! Loveable, furry, old Grover. Taught me everything I know about (!).

Thanks everyone. Hope you enjoy!

The Plague: A Conversation

The Plague: A Conversation

-Hey, man. It’s John.
-Hey buddy, what’s up?
-Yeah, nothin’. Listen man, Jesus, I don’t know how to say this: I can’t come in to work tomorrow. I have the plague.
-I can’t come in to work… I have the plague.
-What the hell are you talking about?
-I know. It’s crazy, but I found out today that I have the plague.
-Like: The Plague? The Black Plague?
-Is there another one…?
-Well… I… I don’t think so. Wait a minute. This is bullshit. Are you fucking with me? Do you really have The Plague?
-Like the one from, like, the 13th century? Wasn’t that in Europe?
-And you can’t come in to work?
-NO! I have the friggin’ plague! And yes, I’m going to be alright. Thank you.
-How long will you be out?
-I don’t know? Jesus, man. I have the fucking plague.
-Okay. Well, if it’s more than three days you have to bring in a note.
-You want me to bring in a doctors note stating that I have the Bubonic Plague…?
-Yeah. Weird, right?
-Okay. Um. I’ll talk to the doctor. But that’s the weirdest fucking thing I have ever heard of.
-So, like, are you contagious?
-You’re kidding, right?
-I don’t know!!
-God damnit….
-Listen, can Katherine cover your shift tomorrow?
-You want me to call her?
-If you could.
-I have the friggin’ plague!!
-Okay. Okay. Alright. I’ll call her. Sheesh, calm down. You know, it’s not exactly a “plague” if only one person has it. Isn’t it something else then?
-You cannot be serious. Like, a handful of people still contract it in the United States. So, yes, it’s still a friggin’ plague. Jesus.
-Well, I don’t know.
-Fucking Google it, man.
-So, um, dude, I have to ask… did you get bit by a rat?
-You are a moron. You are truly a moron. Yeah, it’s carried by rats. But seriously, it’s carried by animals that host fleas. No, before you ask, I don’t have fleas.
-I wasn’t gonna…
-I don’t know how, alright! The doctor said it could be from another person who may have been carrying it. It’s airborne, man. It fucking sucks.
-Yeah… Well, um, feel better…
-Let me know as soon as you can when you can come back. I mean, you know… Katherine is here, and Scott, and Theresa. But Theresa is starting school again soon… and Scott can’t work Sunday mornings… so…
-Alright. Alright. I’ll let you know when I no longer have The Black Plague! Jesus.
-Thanks, man. And, well, I’m sorry.
-Sorry… for what?
-You know. That you have The Plague.
What? Dude, I’m not a customer. You don’t have to apologize to me. Sheesh.
-I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to say. What do you say to someone who has the plague? Oh, man, Theresa is gonna flip out!
-Don’t tell anyone!
-Are you kidding!?!
-NO! I’m dead serious.
-“Dead serious”?
-Fuck off.
-No really. I can’t tell anyone? This is, again, sorry, hilarious!
-Dude, I’m gonna fucking kill you if you say anything! People are gonna look at me sooo strange. And, Theresa is never gonna let me touch her again.
-That’s exactly why I wanna tell her!
-Okay. Okay. I’ll keep it under wraps. You are “sick” and absent for an undetermined amount of time. You know, you should really contact corporate.
-You okay?
-I have the plague…
-I know, man. I know.


Leaving Peckham, or An Attempt at Tourism in London

“We don’t care about no government warning / about that promotion of the simple life and the dams they are building”

-Cornershop, “Brimful of Asha” from the album When I Was Born for the 7th Time (1997)

Roehampton University

I went to London to see Marx’s grave. Well, I accompanied my girlfriend to a conference on the works of Hanif Kureishi at Roehampton University, but I went to see Marx’s grave. It was the one thing I wanted to do while in London. I was determined to see the man’s headstone. That’s it. That was my one touristy thing. It’s because I hate London. All I want is clouds, drizzling rain, fog, fish, chips, pub beer, and double-decker buses; but every damn time I go to London I get unseasonably warm weather, lost trying to find the bus stop, and really expensive food. The worst part is that no one speaks English in London. We just came from Rome, and I felt more comfortable with Italian. At the very least I can say, “Mi dispiace, non parlo Italiano,” flutter my blue eyes and look utterly charming in my ignorance. Or in Germany, where I was staying with my gf, if I try hard enough, then I can catch most of what the Germans are saying. But when you can’t understand someone in London, you cannot utter “I’m sorry, I don’t speak London-ese” and flutter your eyes. You might get punched.

Well, maybe it didn’t help that we were staying in Peckham—named by the New York Times as one of the “poorer sections of London” and, recently, the scene of the August 2011 London riots—where very little English is spoken. One of my former students spoke over six African languages. He told me that English was the toughest language he has ever learned. Maybe it would have been easier for me to try to learn a few kind words in one of the over 500 Nigerian dialects, instead of looking dumb and asking where to buy a bus pass from the bulging woman in a small shop who was diligently guarding the sacks of rice at her feet.

She came to the door in what seemed a massive effort on her part…

…and pointed behind me in the direction of what seemed a thousand different shops, internet cafes, fruit stands, hair salons, sports gambling casinos, money wiring centers, wig stores, African travel bureaus, and then became instantly frustrated by the direction of my gaze. She exited the shop and came very close to taking my hand, as you would out of frustration with a child who doesn’t see what you see, but she just kept pointing as she walked. Luckily, not more than five steps in the direction she had pointed, we found someone who spoke English (or the South London version at least) who pointed at the blue sign of a Newscafe, and told me to go there for a bus pass. I turned around to thank the woman, but she was already back in the small shop. The other woman gave me a confident glance one gives an outsider who has finally found his or her way, and I made my way to the Newscafe to get my Oyster card—London’s plastic, refillable travel card that I was now convinced was better than finding a bus pass each time I needed a ride.

I’m not completely ignorant. I don’t normally walk into small shops with 20 pound bags of rice, flour, and sugar on the floor, and a large woman in traditional African garb guarding them, and ask for a bus pass. It was out of sheer frustration that I asked her in the first place. The first person I asked, a bus driver with a clear cockney accent, whom I found at what appeared to be the Peckham bus station, told me to go to a “cornershop”.

Cornershop - Brimful of Asha DSC_9203

Cornershop – Brimful of Asha DSC_9203 (Photo credit: Plashing Vole)

God help my postmodern mind, but I could only sing the chorus to “Brimful of Asha” after hearing that word, and I forgot how purposeless my journey was becoming. What the hell is a cornershop? Well, anyway, I walked across the street and into a shop on the corner selling newspapers, packages of 19 different curries, fake plastic helicopters, “crisps,” gum, and lottery tickets—my logical definition of a “cornershop”. They were all out of bus passes. Yes, that’s an answer someone can give you in south London. I stood in line at the next shop, one corner down. This place had even more plastic crap on the walls, but fewer packages of curry. Maybe only 15 varieties this time. No bus passes. Try across the street. I must have crossed that street at least four times (back and forth, back and forth) dodging buses as tall as my home in the states—the very ones I should have been traveling inside—and cars that seemed to only come up to my waist.

I didn’t really know where to go. Well, not for a bus pass. I did have options though. I could have sent money to Nigeria or Ghana, if I knew anyone there. I could have purchased a very cheap flight to Cameroon. I could have purchased a rack of lamb and a package of that delicious looking curry. Or I could have gambled on a football team. It was out of desperation that I found the woman with the bulk bags of rice at her feet. I find that when lost, one should rely on middle-aged, heavy-set women for directions and guidance. Maybe because you get a dose of sympathy with that extended finger. At every shop before her, there was a man. And that man wouldn’t budge from behind his aerial perch where the counter was at my eye level. He couldn’t be bothered by this blonde-haired, blue-eyed, German-Swedish-American fool from the Midwest who was now stuck in south London trying desperately to get to Marx’s north London grave and say something profound, yet make it back in time to meet his girlfriend in front of the Peckham library before dinner. But this woman left her shop. She lumbered off of her stool, walked into the street with me, and made sure I got somewhere I wanted, or to someone who would help me.

It was nearly 3pm by the time I got to Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery East. I had to be back to Peckham by 3:30 so as to not worry my girlfriend, or leave her stranded as the only white woman in front of Peckham library not whizzing by on a bicycle, but it had taken me nearly three hours to get to Marx’s grave. I didn’t hurry though. With no phone or email access there wasn’t much I could do about it now. It seemed pointless to turn around without reaching my destination.

Marx’s grave is around a slight southern bend in the main road heading east. Although, you don’t really notice the bend; instead, one only notices the enormous and ostentatious bust of the man himself facing north.

The bust stands on the top of a nearly 6-foot tall, by nearly 4-foot wide rectangular, grey monument. If that same bust wasn’t printed on the map I purchased for £1 or the numerous brochures in the ticket office, I don’t think I would have missed its stature. Standing next to it with my 6’3” frame, I almost felt like giving it a big bear hug—if such a gesture was socially acceptable. To my surprise, there were a few roses lovingly placed near the base, and a white envelope and card bearing a single dove of peace. It felt odd that I hadn’t brought any trinkets as sacrifice.

In fact, I found that I did not have as much to say to the ginormous bust of Marx as I thought I would when I began this quixotic journey. As I was High Barnet bound on the London’s Northern tube line, I tried to remember pithy quotes from The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, but I couldn’t help eavesdropping on a saucy conversation between two Londoners wearing riding breeches and carrying equestrian helmets who were talking about getting “pissed” the night before a ride. Even though I had once spent hours underlining The Marx-Engels Reader for my Marxist Cultural Theory course two spring semesters ago, I couldn’t remember anything the man wrote. So when I arrived, I blundered and said the following while recording a quick video on my iPhone: “Well, (sigh) your dead and I’m alive. What you said and wrote may have meant something, but we all die in the end.” God! What tripe! And after all the crap I went through! It sounded like something a less-poetic, plebeian Nietzsche would say at Marx’s grave (”Also denn, Sie sind tot…”). But that was the only thing I could think to say.

Maybe I could only say those words because that bastard Marx was staring down at me like all those shop keepers who could not be bothered to come down and point me in the direction of where to buy a bus pass, or how in the hell to get across London. Maybe it was just Fight Club’s Marla Singer and her rational justification for stealing food from the elderly echoing throughout my postmodern brain: “Tragically, they’re dead. I’m alive and I’m in poverty. You want any?” Whatever it was, I wanted to be with the living at that moment and not with the dead.

Elephant and Castle, London

So, after fifteen gloriously morbid minutes with Marx, I left Highgate Cemetery East and headed back home to south London. The tube ride seemed faster this time and when boarding the #12 bus from London’s Elephant & Castle station to Peckham, I received a much headed lesson in capitalism: my Oyster card was empty. Actually it was negative £.50, and the bus driver would not let me on. I must have been an example for all the hundreds of London kids in plaid skirts and knee-high socks, carrying books and cell phones, trying to worm their way past him. I pleaded with the driver with my heavy Midwestern accent through the outline of hexagonal holes in the thick glass, trying to delay some inevitable judgment until he would finally give in and let me on. But he wouldn’t budge. I offered a £5, but he couldn’t make change—what exactly was this man’s function if not to extend a gentlemanly olive branch and let pitiable, earnest tourists on their bus in a time of need? No such luck. Reluctantly, I got off the bus and back into the crowd. I made my way back to the tube station and “topped-up” my card with £5—just enough to get me on the next #12 and out of this madness.

Coaster from Peckham apt.

The bus ride was quiet. I sat adjacent to the stairway on the upper level of the double-decker and checked my watch every 2-3 minutes. I knew she wouldn’t be mad, but I knew she would worry. I arrived at the library square, but I didn’t see her anywhere. I walked the quarter-mile concrete path hurriedly toward our second floor apartment, passing a dozen other various brick townhouses espousing the very picture of British similitude—excluding the variety of colored entry doors. When I arrived, I played my role of Romeo well—yelling up at the open window, probably interrupting some local resident’s peaceful lamb curry dinner—but to no avail. My Juliet was elsewhere. Halfway back to the library, I saw her dark purple coat in the distance walking toward me. She stopped, placed both her hands on her chest and, with a sigh, mouthed the words only a woman of Croatian-German Catholic descent would in this situation: “Oh, thank God…” We embraced like two refugee lovers, and agreed never to part again during our time together.

The Mercenary Adjunct, or What Would Machiavelli Do?

English: Cover page of 1550 edition of Machiav...

Taken from http://www.storiain.net/arret/num60/artic6.htm. Svenska: Furstens omslagsbild. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Chapter XII of his world renowned, sixteenth century instruction manual to Lorenzo d’Medici of Florence, The Prince (1532), Niccolo Machiavelli states that “The chief foundations of all states… are good laws and good arms” (Machiavelli, all quotes taken from Gutenberg & are public domain). What he meant is that a nation should produce its own military forces, and never hire outside forces to defend its own land. If they do so, then they will suffer penalties he articulates later on in the text. But he makes clear that these two foundations are contingent upon one another. He states: “there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws” (ibid.). Essentially, one is both a determinant of, and a dependent upon, the other.

Over the past few years there has been debate and general discourse concerning the allowance of the coveted “tenure-track” position within academic institutions. Many argue that this provides teachers with a “free-ride” where they are allowed to do or say anything they wish, regardless of university approval.

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Mac...

Santi di Tito’s famous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli, now residing in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy; headcrop. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their rivals argue that tenure is one of the last bastions of organized labor, and a reward for the excruciating intellectual labor that takes place in academia. I believe that there are allusions that can be drawn from Machiavelli’s The Prince that would lend credence to an argument against the way universities and colleges employ adjunct professors. While I am not wholly in favor of tenure, I do take issue with the use and abuse of the adjunct’s position. As would Niccolo Machiavelli, but not for the reasons we may at first assume.

Before I put my opinion into the hat (as they say), I want to make something clear: I’m an adjunct professor of English. Out of maybe seventy general education instructors at the college where I teach, which shall remain anonymous, maybe twelve are full-time employees of the company. The rest are adjunct. Mercenaries. Hired guns used exclusively to fortify a business and protect it against closure. We work for a flat, per-credit remuneration, with the only chance for an increase being the coveted full-time position. Furthermore, we have no guarantee of further employment, since we are on a contractual basis. Our contracts state that it may be cancelled, or prorated, at any time the employer feels necessary. We have no health insurance, nor life insurance. No 401k. And no vacation time accrues. We are simply mercenaries.

Machiavelli is quite opinionated when it comes to mercenary forces. He states: “mercenary and auxiliary forces are useless and dangerous; and if one holds his state based on these arms, he will stand neither firm nor safe; for they are disunited, ambitious, and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends, cowardly before enemies” (ibid.). Well! That’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does hold some basic truths. What is the motivation of the adjunct to be disciplined and faithful to a particular college’s ideals? What is their reasoning for teaching beyond personal ambition? The mercenary doesn’t attend regular staff meetings because he or she has outside responsibilities, such as other jobs, and has little loyalty without immediate reward. So, he or she is less informed of important matters. And less likely to recognize, and thus respect or empathize with, his or her superiors.

Henry V of England

Henry V of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The truth is that the mercenary has no loyalty, save for her art and her livelihood. If you fought in a national army, you would be surrounded by fellow countrymen. What a joy to discuss your lives and your country with your co-combatants, and then fight for your patriotic ideals as one! Waving a flag high and singing patriotic tunes, as if you were fighting with “God for Harry! England and Saint George!,” screaming “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!” (Shakespeare). The patriotic spirit is precisely what the mercenary lacks, and precisely why Machiavelli sees them as the eventual ruin of a nation.

What is then created is a state protected and guarded from failure by those who harbor no loyalty to the state for which they fight. Machiavelli continues: “they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend” (ibid.). Essentially, the adjunct goes where she is called. If the college is unable to hire them, or they find a more lucrative position, then they move on. Plain and simple. Someone else may come and fill the position, but all this does is create a stressful and bureaucratically laden administration whose sole job is to hire/re-hire on a whim. This then creates a college/university of which the majority of its inhabitants are administration, rather then serving their most elementary function: teaching (see note 1). With instructors routinely coming and going, attaching themselves to a university based on only a few basic personal factors, at the bottom of which resides loyalty. The university does not harbor camaraderie, intellectual engagement and interactivity amongst co-workers, or a shared notion of the universities or department’s ideals and mission. The deterioration of not only the universities status, but the educational standard of the university, is at stake. And it seems eminent from what Machiavelli warns.

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiave...

Famous posthumous portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What the college uses the adjunct exclusively for then is their skills and capabilities as an instructor. But Machiavelli warns about this as well: “if they are [skilled], you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to their own greatness, either by oppressing you, who are their master, or others contrary to your intentions; but if the captain is not skillful, you are ruined in the usual way” (ibid.). The best interest of the college would be to hire those who are not too skilled so that they leave for a better job or a specialized degree, but someone skilled enough so you retain students. This is not easy. One has to make sure there is a minimum requirement of intellectual activity, but not too much so that the adjunct doesn’t wander for better employment. It should better them in their art, but not so much that their confidence grows beyond its place. The result is a lack of educational standards that are necessary for the globalized workplace. In other words, there are not “good laws where the state is not well armed” (ibid.).

I cannot conceive of any immediate solution to the problem of the use and abuse of adjunct instructors. In fact, I think it is here to stay for quite some time. The influx of work can often be a perk, allowing for a sort of “freedom” from responsibility. No classes? You’ve got time to right that novel! Or polish your resume! Or backpack across a state or two! But with this supposed “freedom” comes the life of the mercenary adjunct. And the realization that you never know where or when your next paycheck is coming, what would happen if you became ill, or if you will ever find steady employment. And with a mercenary army comes the lack of “good laws” along with “good arms,” in the shape of falling educational standards and the inability to understand how those standards can be measured (see note 2).

As Machiavelli warned Lorenzo d’Medici so long ago: “the ruin of Italy has been caused by nothing else than by resting all her hopes for many years on mercenaries” (ibid.). So should we heed his warning by conceiving a negotiation between the sacrosanct position of tenure, and the vulnerable predicament facing the mercenary adjunct.

1. A quick Google search will display numerous articles regarding the dwindling ration of instructors vs administration employed in colleges, universities, and public schools.

2. See debates on No Child Left Behind, and other modifications, thereof.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. W. K. Marriott. Project Gutenberg. Ed. John Bickers, David Widger, and others. Oct 2010. Web. 14 Jun 2012.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry V. Project Gutenberg. Tudor Edition. Nov 1998. Web. 14 June 2012.