The urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.

In the artist of all kinds I think one can detect an inherent dilemma, which belongs to the coexistence of two trends, the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.
— D.W. Winnicott (Via Jen B. MacDonald.)

Donald Winnicott has always made my heart go pitterpat.

Let me be clear, in offering this quote, that I speak not of the notion that artists wish to create in splendid isolation in the attic. What Winnicott hits on here is the passionate ambivalence of creating the self. That that ambivalence might also play itself out in other aspects of the creator’s life should come as little surprise.

“I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came…”

Apologies for virtually vanishing for so long but I’ve been inspired to get back in the saddle by the good people at Sonnet Media offering to to a little re-boot of this site.

I know for the big-chunk-of-text-by-somebody-else I’m about to post here that I should really be doing this on some Tumblr, but permit me my old fashion. I post this largely because Clay Shirky has influenced my understanding not just of the social, economic and cultural effects of the Internet but of social theory in general. His approach, his mode of questioning, his willingness to confront awkward implications is one I seek to learn from. So to watch him begin to make an account of tertiary education (in The Awl), where he himself makes a living, is quite thrilling.


I’ve been thinking about the effects of the internet for a couple of decades now. I’ve watched industry after industry forced to renegotiate their methods and models, in the face of a medium that allows for perfect copying, global distribution, zero incremental cost, ridiculously easy group-forming: The music business. Newspapers. Travel agents. Publishers. Hotel owners. And while watching, I’ve always wondered what I’d do when my turn came.


And now here it is. And it turns out my job is to tell you not to trust us when we claim that there’s something sacred and irreplaceable about what we academics do. What we do is run institutions whose only rationale—whose only excuse for existing—is to make people smarter.


Sometimes we try to make ourselves smarter. We call that research. Sometimes we try to make our peers smarter. We call that publishing. Sometimes we try to make our students smarter. We call that teaching. And that’s it. That’s all there is. These are important jobs for sure, and they are hard jobs at times, but they’re not magic. And neither are we.


Mostly, we’re doing the best we can. (Though some of us aren’t, as with bottom-feeding scum like Kaplan U and Everest, but those institutions are just asset-stripping student loans.) But our way of doing the best we can is to keep doing what we’ve always done, modifying it a bit with stuff we make up as we go along. Just like most people inside most institutions. Some years that works out fine, but we haven’t had so many of those years recently.


For all our good will, college in the U.S. has gotten worse for nearly everyone who relies on us. For some students—millions of them—the institutions in which they enroll are more reliable producers of debt than education. This has happened on our watch.


The competition from upstart organizations will make things worse for many of us. (I like the experiments we’ve got going at NYU, but I don’t fantasize that we’ll be unscathed.) After two decades of watching, though, I also know that that’s how these changes go. No industry has ever organized an orderly sharing of power with newcomers, no matter how interesting or valuable their ideas are, unless under mortal threat.


Instead, like every threatened profession, I see my peers arguing that we, uniquely, deserve a permanent bulwark against insurgents, that we must be left in charge of our destiny, or society will suffer the consequences. Even the record store clerks tried that argument, back in the day. In the academy, we have a lot of good ideas and a lot of practice at making people smarter, but it’s not obvious that we have the best ideas, and it is obvious that we don’t have all the ideas. For us to behave as if we have—or should have—a monopoly on educating adults is just ridiculous.

“If You Want To Live in a Democracy…” and other soundbites

A talk I gave in a Boston a couple of weeks ago, through the kind invitation of Eve Bridburg at Grub Street. My own personal favorite moment was in the Q&A (it always is really, that’s where I do my best thinking…) around the problem of elitism, literature, and civil society. Q&A starts around the 50 minute mark…

Someday This Will Be…Worth an Awful Lot

The first of the limited editions I’d long long long ago promised for Red Lemonade is finally coming to fruition.


The first, an artist’s edition of Lynne Tillman’s Someday This Will be Funny, is created by Jim Hodges, chair of the Sculpture department at Yale University and subject of a major mid-career retrospective by the Walker Art Center and Dallas Museum of Art (yeah, gotta show off a little…) It consists of 21 individual books containing short fiction, including “That’s How Wrong My Love Is,” “Chartreuse,” “Madame Realism’s Conscience,” and “Save Me from the Pious and the Vengeful.”


Each of the 21 books has a different color cover so the reader may rearrange the 2×2 book grid in the 18″ x 24″ display case to present a different four-color image. To aid in presentation the display case is sheathed in plexiglass. Jim Hodges’s artist edition of Tillman’s short story collection thereby tests the boundaries of the bound book by unpacking and repackaging it and freeing the reader-cum-viewer to do the same, offering a shifting, kaleidoscopic grid of color as one possible incarnation, one moment in the interplay of text and image.


Here’s a slideshow that gives you a sense of it and you can avail of our generous pre-order discount here.

Welcome to the Storyverse

You can get a beta invite at Small Demons