You are currently browsing the monthly archive for January 2015.

1. Still here, by god, grim and swaggering like a dying cowboy in the snow. i’ve had very little work since November so am stone broke and even dipping into my UK credit card to stay alive buy whisky. i finished work at 1030 on Monday, came home and because i only got about 4 hours’ sleep on Sunday evening i decided to sleep for a bit. As i dozed the sun came out over the snow, that almost painful brightness and blue, wintersun. The sudden weather change took me back to the times i slept in the sun at university, where i usually went to bed in the early hours, curtains open (by preference i am nocturnal, and feel a surreal freedom at being awake when others slumber, and sleeping when others are about their horrid business).

At university i just assumed i would get a good job or an academic post, though even then i found the latter a strange and unlikely prospect. Looking back, the 4 years at Durham were useful and it’s hard to imagine how i could have survived 5 years in the temp trenches without having learnt to see things as it were from afar, in a kind of depth, as i learnt by reading and re-reading – perverse though it doubtless seems, reading Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil & Stella eleven times was good training and helped me resist the attrition of what people call the real world. People are likely to sniff at the idea of studying English Literature but without writing or talking about a book, one tends to skim lightly over the surface of action or language; it’s not merely that i usually read a work several times before writing an essay: i was looking for patterns, apparent contradictions, deeper resolutions, and i got much closer to e.g. Sir Gawain & the Green Knight by consciously working through to the truly strange depths. Before writing the essay i felt that Gawain was a poem of high intelligence and sophistication, but really couldn’t say more than that; to write i had to get closer, and it passed into my understanding of the world; and while it has probably made me even more unemployable than i was to begin with, it has value for me. And perhaps, it helps in my job now, such as it is.

2. Being broke and generally disillusioned with so-called teaching, i’ve been miserably looking at job ads, a gruesome experience. Here’s a sample of the horror with which i am confronted:

shitty jobs

i could probably do most of these jobs after a few weeks watching someone, but naturally employers want someone who’s done a similar job in the past and won’t wander gormlessly about chewing gum and saying, Gee, so what exactly is a Cooperation Project Manager?; and naturally i would rather teach English than be a Senior Power Management Unit Component. A friend suggested i rewrite some websites for free and use this to get paying work, and this seems like a good idea, but one for which i lack any enthusiasm, in part because i’ve learnt that almost all German companies would never hire someone who doesn’t work for a “preferred supplier” like McLingua, so it would i think be just so much time and labour lost.

3. But really, i just feel a deep-seated aversion to anything to do with business, sales, the hustle. Asking for money strikes me as vulgar and those, like an American ex-rock-star colleague in Kassel, who has a MBA and used McLingua to pay for his moving costs to China, then quit the job and started his own business, strike me as amusing but also bizarre and repellent with their thrusting elbows, wide sales grins, and total absorption in money and the getting thereof. The MBA rock star, for example, used something a student told him to make money on insider trading, and wanted to make some cash by writing an article about a defective piece of military equipment – he knew about the latter because a student at the company told him the product was unsafe, and being a shiny MBA my colleague immediately thought How can I make money out of this? He was untroubled by the thought of betraying a confidence or of probably instigating a “mole hunt” in his student’s company; and my colleague, thanks to his old rock band, certainly doesn’t need money.

4. i’m aware that not everyone in business is a spiv, but it seems hard to survive in that world without being so. Talking with my students, who are mostly fairly normal and generally some kind of lower to middle manager, i hear the same stories again & again: grotesque pep talks from the higher bosses, cancerous bureaucracy, vile politicking, apple polishing, networking, incompetence, everything oriented to reward those in power and their favourites, and the shareholders – or even to simply placate or gull the shareholders with manipulations or outright falsehoods. My students regularly chortle bitterly at the latest piece of corporate bollocks, so in one company, let’s call it Squeezy Ball, more than a thousand staff were laid off to boost the share price, and this “project” was called Squeezy Ball Excellence.

This is the world of business and i want as little as possible to do with it. i feel like puking when i read about companies’ vision and beliefs and goals and mission. It’s true that it’s not as abhorrent here in business as it was in academia, but i feel incapable of doing more than skirting the very margins of this world. The loathing i feel for this meretricious and conniving nonsense paralyses me, one reason i guess that i’ve failed almost every job interview i’ve ever had.

i enjoy human to human interactions, but human to institution/ organisation interactions are preposterous & sinister to me, not even real interactions but rather a kind of enforced fantasy, like going to an Acid party and having to pretend to be ecstatically hallucinating when actually the drug just makes you nauseous and lethargic.

Going through a job interview usually puts me in mind of a reversed Maoist interrogation, the victim boasting of how perfectly he embodies the fashionable lunacy, how little human and unaccountable remains to interfere with total corporate identification. i feel, entering this world, like a sheep-carrying peasant going into a shining government office to plead his case.

5. For me at least, philosophy isn’t really about politics or making good arguments for specific causes, and so i feel puzzled when political thinkers occasionally call themselves philosophers. At its heart, i see philosophy – the love or pursuit of wisdom – as an attempt for an extra-worldly perspective, the Archimedean point (and the death of Archimedes suggests how the world will treat philosophers). One is impelled by the world, to move beyond, to be able to comprehend the world in all its passing variety and specificity. Philosophy isn’t about facts and knowledge, but about wisdom – an interpretation of facts & knowledge which, i would say, requires the Archimedean distance and almost indifference.

So the early Socrates doesn’t put forward any worldly proposals or manifestos – he merely knocks arguments down (even if his methods are often just a kind of nitpicking wordplay); he seems to be searching for an approach to the world, and starts by finding himself dissatisfied by the sophists who are the Ancient Greek equivalents of my MBA colleague or fashionable academics today. It is the later Plato, of Republic, who has become akin to these youtube bloggers and commentators, calling for specific political changes and calling themselves philosophers therefore.

This makes philosophy sound so unworldly as to be sterile and pointless, and of course it is if you want to market the latest Apple product or change healthcare or deal with unemployment, because for that you need to be totally engaged with facts, knowledge, things that stand within the world – but the world is ultimately determined by that which stands outside of the world. i don’t see that philosophers can’t opine or decry or propose, but then it’s not philosophy, it’s just politics.

The philosophers i like have the inutile purity of the early Socrates, either knocking down unsteady constructions (Wittgenstein), or pursuing an idea so far removed from the world as to be uncontaminated thereby (Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard). Even in my youth i didn’t agree with Schopenhauer, but i enjoyed The World as Will & Representation because i felt, and responded to, the impulse to understand the world by getting outside of it. i have no idea if there’s any culture-wide value to studying philosophy, but as with English Literature it has helped me to understand my own alienation from, discomfort with, a world that demands one be immersed up to one’s eyebrows in  self-serving bullshit, servile acquiescence, and amoral calculation.

6. My preferred teaching technique is to instigate and direct a conversation, correct grammar, feed them vocabulary, and do grammar instruction if it’s required. This only works if i can quickly and consistently establish a human connection, and most of the time i can, and the lessons go well enough. My students are often surprised to learn that i usually spend my weekend alone, since i seem so lively & sociable, but perhaps i can be what one called a Spaßvogel because i go home and read and think and try to win free of the world, to get to the skeletal origins, where there are no facts, no knowledge, nothing to argue about or for, just the sharp angular forms by which all this was made.

1. This fell out of a notebook when i returned to Munich from my pre-Xmas bunse in the Austro-Hungarian empire, a picture the Viking drew of me very quickly as i was smoking my pipe at him in Vienna (one of the last refuges of tobacco sanity):

portrait by vkg dec 2014 (1)

Being able to smoke in bars is a surreal pleasure, like being able to slap anyone you like, or to just get in any parked car, Bourne style. This time i found a fucking commie bar, Pub Bukowski, and smoked at length, sometimes with the Viking, enjoying cheap and potent and good cocktails, gazing up at the fucking commies on the wall:

vienna 2014 (7) vienna 2014 (10)

On the whole, i would rather be in Vienna than Munich, to be able to smoke, and to more easily conspire with the Viking (in nearby Bratislava), but lack the money and energy for yet another relocation, and besides, Munich is quite tolerable and i have the dandy underground here, and some kind of professional reputation, making it easier to get work.

2. Nonetheless, my teaching resolve is weakening of late. Very few teachers can do this job for more than year without burning out or just slacking off and trying to get by without doing much. i’ve fallen into the latter trap and am steeling myself to read TEFL books and do lesson prep, even though it actually feels kind of pointless – most of my students make very little progress, inevitable perhaps since they only have 90 minutes once a week, and rarely use English outside of class, and then they make do with a kind of degenerate “business English” which is actually sufficient (comprising a limited vocabulary of words like: project, roll-out, deadline, problem, implementation, meeting).

It’s a strange occupation since improvements are hard to measure, especially with my (usually 30 – 60 year old, already intermediate-level) students, one reason i like having low levels from time to time, where it is possible to teach something that will stick. Students are the customer and generally know nothing about language acquisition or pedagogy, and so occasionally make strange complaints, based on a vague platonic idea of how teaching should be.

Quite often, i have absolutely no sense that my students have improved, and am taken aback when they say that the lessons have helped a lot, though i’m too tactful to say “really? i didn’t notice.”

3. At times, the gap between my private world of reading and thought, and the world of my students can seem almost unbridgeable, but as long as i can suppress my own interests and be thoroughly absorbed in theirs, it more or less works. i enjoy learning about e.g. gas separation chambers, canteen supply management, aeronautical engineering, fashion, but it can feel strange, after a week of mostly one-way interactions, with me simply nodding and asking questions, and providing error correction; so when one student asked me “how was YOUR week?” i was flustered and could only say, “don’t really remember, lots of teaching”. There would be no point trying to talk about the things bouncing around in my head, at the moment: St Paul’s epistles, Helen Pinkerton, the Abwehr, the Philosophical Investigations, Stalin, Stalin’s pipe; and since almost all my social interactions are in class, i’ve got out of the habit of communicating anything about myself.

After finishing my temp memoir and deciding it’s boring shit, i feel a disconnection from not merely those 4.5 years but also from my past; coinciding with a recent and mildly horrific inadvertent drug experience, where i could only really remember the last few seconds and everything before this seemed like a dream of a dream. It only lasted a few hours but i realise that whether it caused or merely independently paralleled my current mood, i feel as if i have no past, just a memory which may or may not have any significance, probably not. This sounds like wonderful zenlike clarity and in a sense it helps: i feel unencumbered and simplified, but also with almost no significant connection to the present. Without memory and continuity, the present can be extremely clear and solid, but as if it’s just something that has entered my field of vision and has no real relevance for me. i perceive these things, i listen to my students, and feel that really it’s not my world, because i am now little more than a set of perceptual organs.

4. The other day, i came across this picture on Tumblr; it seems to be Austro-Hungarian stormtroopers from WW1:


Second from left looks quite a lot like Wittgenstein and though as far as i’m aware he was a mechanic for the first couple of years of WW1, then an artillery spotter, i suppose it’s possible that this is him. i wonder how many of these men survived the war, and if any, how they adjusted to life in the broken empire and the horrors of the next three decades. It was a world where in a sense the cultural memory was nearly destroyed, and i think just as one requires personal memory to be more than a recording apparatus, so with cultures – and the more complex the society, the more this is necessary. For many in these times, an imagined future provided a kind of illusory continuity – the bad dream of so-called progress; but roots go into the ground and memory into the past; the future does not exist.

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