Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Camel Screaming At An Onrushing Piece of Straw (The Great Gatsby)

Haven't heard of The Great Gatsby NES game? Check out this site for information on this exciting recent find in NES history.

This post is going to be political.

There's a school of thought that says I shouldn't do this. That this blog is, in the end, a form of entertainment, and that politics have no place in it. It's the same school of thought that goes into criticizing the backup story in Action Comics #900, of which Chuck Dixon bewilderingly said "The expression of personal politics has no place in mainstream superhero comics."

The trouble is, this is rubbish. Politics is the practical system by which we manage the structure of society. Anything you do that involves society at large - say, publish a comic book that thousands of people read - is political. Stepping out of your house in the morning has a wealth of material political consequences. How do you choose to visually represent your identity, including gender presentation? What sort of house did you walk out of? How big? How much of that house is conspicuous consumption? What is the grass you are stepping on like? What is used to fertilize it? Once you are outside of your house, what is your mode of conveyance to your destination? Car? Bicycle? Foot? All of these are decisions that are impossible to separate from politics. Indeed, anything you do in public is political, because anything you do in public by definition a claim about how relationships between and among people should be conducted.

While we're on the subject, can we also rubbish the inherent goodness of agreeing to disagree? I'm firmly pro-choice, but I in no way see why someone who genuinely believes that a fetus is a living human being should simply "agree to disagree" with me on this point. In their eyes, I support the systematized murder of babies. Frankly, if you genuinely believe someone is providing material support to the mass murder of babies and are still willing to have a drink with them, there is something seriously wrong with you. Similarly, if one believes, as many on the pro-choice side do (I am not actually among them) that abortion comes down entirely to an issue of a woman's autonomy over her own body, it is difficult to come up with a compelling account of the ethics of casually breaking bread with someone who believes that the government ought strictly regulate women's bodies and that if a woman gets pregnant she is nothing more than a breeding slave for the next nine months. Which is, let's face it, what the opposing positions amount to if you actually firmly and unwaveringly believe in your own initial premises.

As the extremely smart and quite fetching JD I'm running bits of this entry by points out, however, this viewpoint, although potentially logically consistent, would have the unfortunate result of reducing our society to thuggish tribalism. The smart and fetching JD is half correct. Certainly this is one of the major and obvious ways of handling the ethical obligations of political viewpoints. There is, however, another that is worth taking very seriously: that the consequences of this observation ought to be a pronounced skepticism towards moral certainty. Not a complete ruling out of moral certainty - without that we'd be really ineffectual humans - but a skepticism towards it whereby one remains open-minded to the possibility that other ethical worldviews might be accurate and seeks actively at all times to test one's own viewpoints and see if they require adjustment.

Here, then, is a testing of mine. As Tuesday's post might have indicated, I am in some ways deeply unsatisfied with the progress of my life vis a vis my decision to spend eleven years in higher education, seven of them working towards a PhD. My objection, roughly, is this.

I got a PhD out of a desire to spend my life in public service. I want to spend my life engaging in research and teaching people. Make no mistake, committing yourself to a career teaching at a public university is a life of public service every bit as much as a commitment to armed service in the military is.

In pursuit of this goal, I spent five years making wages equivalent to what I'd get in a minimum wage job. And it was a job. Yes, I took classes as part of it, but the classes were in pursuit of a PhD in English - a degree that literally qualifies you for exactly one job: college professor. An overwhelming majority of college professors are hired by state governments. So far from being a service bestowed upon me by the University of Florida, let us treat my classes as what they were - training for a public service career for which I was given token living expenses while I conducted.

Let us also admit the reason my PhD program existed and was the size it was. PhD students in English teach two to three courses a year for wages of, for most of them, around $11k. That's $3667 a course. Starting salary for a tenure track professor of English in Florida is $48k for four courses a year. That's $12,000 a course. At less than a third of the cost, any courses you can offload to PhD students are a money saver. So universities build large PhD programs specifically for the cheap labor.

In an even remotely fair system, then, in exchange for five years of my working life at minimum wage while training for a career in public service, the state that exploited me for those five years would return the favor subsequently with, say, a job. But, of course, the entire point of exploiting me was that I was far cheaper than hiring someone they were done exploiting at an actual reasonable wage. And so, after spending my 20s making minimum wage while training for a job, I now reach the point in my life where no such jobs actually exist.

Except it's worse than that. These are not the normal budget cuts that are done with some patina of regret where politicians pretend they don't want to cut jobs in my field. No, now we are at a point where one of the major political parties in America actually actively demonizes public employees as "freeloaders." (Yes, this happened.) In other words, it is not merely that budget cuts have left few jobs in my area - a situation that would be gallingly unjust considering the five years of cheap labor I have already given the states whose budgets are being cut. It is that my entire willingness to work in public service is now the actual grounds on which I am being declared undeserving of a job.

So when I suggest that I have snapped in my previous post, this is why - because I have given eleven working years of my life to a system that has exploited me and abandoned me. Now, in practice, and I feel obliged to stress this, I'm OK. I've got a support network in place and am working actively on transitioning into freelance writing. (We call this "portfolio building." That and "acquiring the discipline to write an average of 2000 words a day so that when you reach the end of either blog you can transition seamlessly into bashing out stuff for money." Speaking of which, we do accept paid writing gigs. And do birthday parties. Though really, hiring a writer for your kid's birthday party is a surefire way to lose Dad of the Year.) But the thing is, my situation is not even remotely unusual.

So the question is, what degree of moral certitude is appropriate here? I find it fairly difficult to escape having some degree of it. There is something fundamentally unfair about building a system that solicits people to work at substandard wages for five years to train for a public service job, and then uses the existence of people willing to accept those terms as a tool to reduce the number of public service jobs of the sort they train for. Creating a charade of training people for a job that doesn't exist and then using the marks you draw in as cheap replacements for the job itself is wrong. In a functional system, the state of Florida would actually hire its own PhDs, using its PhD programs as training for its own job rosters.

In other words, I am left with the inexorable sense that I have been deliberately conned and swindled by, most directly, the state of Florida, and, more broadly, the entire American education system and thus, by extension, the entire country. And I am angry about it. The most obvious manifestation of this anger is an increasing inability to deal with Republicans (the party most visibly seeking to ensure that I can never be hired in the field I trained in for eleven years) on a social level. Sorry, guys. But you've kind of been engaging in a massive and deliberate campaign to leave me unemployed, and frankly, it makes me want to cause you intense physical pain.

All of this, however, amounts to little more than one angry shouty man with a blog. Let's look at things that have little to do with me. First of all, there is money that used to go towards things like hiring tenure track professors at state universities. Where is this money now? The answer appears to be that the money is where most of the money is now - in the hands of the wealthy. In fact, at present the wealthiest 1% of Americans have more wealth than the bottom 90% combined. To ground that in numbers, that means that for each of the wealthiest three million you can line up over ninety people and that one person has more than all of them combined.

This is a new situation. Incomes among the wealthiest 1% have been skyrocketing since, actually, the heyday of the NES. Incomes for everybody else have been stagnant. This is the grand legacy of trickle down - a phrase that has always seemed more suitable for an outhouse than a global economy. Radical gains for the wealthy, fuck all for everyone else. The result of this is that, as a practical matter, there are people with miles more than they need or can ever plausibly consume in a lifetime who are hoarding it while others can't afford health care.

The math here is telling. The per capita GDP in America would have everyone making about the $48k of an entry level college professor. The very existence of people with an income of, say, a million dollars a year means that the equivalent of 20.83 people need to have their incomes zeroed to allow that to happen. Everyone making six figures is zeroing at least one other person. This is the chilling, callous math of scarcity economics. So when you have a runaway wealth gap where 34% of the wealth is concentrated in the top 1% and 2.5% is among the poorest 50%, well, that means there's a lot of other people who have hit around 30 and realized that their country has no investment in their ever being able to make a living.

Which, after what has to be some kind of a record for how long a post has gone without mentioning a single video game directly, brings us to The Great Gatsby. I suppose I should give up the joke and admit that this is in fact just a flash game in the style of an NES game, but really, where's the fun in that. Especially because the central joke of the game - the fact that Fitzgerald's baroquely modernist dialogue fits relatively seamlessly with the conventions of Engrish-laden NES games - depends on that knowing misdirection. (On the other hand, the end of level two, which I cannot bring myself to spoil, is flat-out hilarious like nothing I have seen in a video game since the original Portal.)

But more to the point, let's pause and look at the novel the game is based on, at least briefly. At its heart, it is a book about conspicuous consumption and the unsustainability of it. Written in a time period with a wealth gap comparable to that of 2011, the heart of the novel is the question of whether money alone accounts for the difference between the wealthy and the ordinary. Its answer is that it doesn't - that there is still something fundamentally different about the old money of Tom and the new money of Gatsby, and that Gatsby can never truly bridge that gap no matter how much money he has. In other words, the novel establishes that there is, in the realm of conspicuous consumption, no such thing as "enough." And, equally crucially, it does not establish this as an absolute condition. Nick, after all, turns his back on the world of conspicuous consumption and returns to the midwest in the end. But he remains pessimistic about the possibility of the destructive rat race ceasing, saying "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther... And one fine morning --"

Notably, the ending crawl on the game uses this as well. The thing is, Fitzgerald was wrong if he saw this as futile. Since it's very difficult to view the Great Depression and World War II as anything other than a complete and revolutionary transformation of American society. This is because there is a relatively straightforward causality to revolution. Contrary to the beliefs/wishes of many, revolution, broadly considered, is a wholly straightforward phenomenon that has nothing to do with the supposed apathy of a population.

Take any population and give them high unemployment, particularly high unemployment among younger and more educated citizens, remove all evidence of a long-term solution or even that the government cares about this, add in rising food prices, and crank up the temperatures to summer levels and you will have an explosion. So how are we doing on that?

Oh. Oh dear.

Now, of course, revolution is not inherently a violent process - although violent revolution is a very easy and DIY process requiring only a brick and the window of a corporate office to commence. Bullets and billionaires are two tastes that someone is bound to decide might go well together. But this is hardly the only route available.

Remembering that avoiding political action is essentially an impossible task, we might ask what the Nintendo Generation's revolution would look like. If, as seems increasingly inevitable, a flashpoint is coming, our concern should be one of steering it. In other words, how do we, scattered children of the NES that we are, understand our relationship with broad social change? Or, to put it in pragmatic terms, why is it that putting The Great Gatsby on the NES is so strangely apropos? What is it about the NES that leaves it with a strange suitability to the task of commenting on a novel that is about a society on the cusp of collapse?

This entry is not the one that gives the answers to that. But it is the one that inaugurates the theme that interests me at the moment. 8-Bit Eschatology. Let's have ourselves a fun summer, shall we?


  1. I have been relentlessly following both of your blogs for several months now. As a current first year student in an arts program that will inevitably lead into english or writing I do continuously worry about my future employability. While your own current situation is naturally unfavourable, your skill at dissecting meaning from such unexplored texts inspires me to look at my own popular culture at a level I otherwise wouldn't. Thankyou for speaking out, and viva the revolution (however it may come).

    I think I'd like you as my Professor.

  2. Great game, great post. I'm an English MA and, three years out and with nothing but education experience, I'm going crazy. I'm from a family of educators but now the low pay and crazy public perception of our work lives is driving me out. I hope to see a lot of other people leave too, because I think an exodus is the only thing that can save the profession for anyone who wants to stay.