Classrooms in the Underground

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Ian Marcus Corbin's essay “Losing the Class” tries to console his colleagues in academia about the disengagement they’re feeling from their students. He describes the scene as he sees it from his side of the classroom:

“If you were to ask them about their views on shareholder capitalism, transgender bathrooms, hormone therapy for children, religious pluralism, or any other heavy-freighted question, nine times out of ten the only—and I mean the only—consideration on their minds will be to quickly scan their memories for the correct position on this matter. The talented ones will express the same conclusions but with an appropriate quantity of emotional emphasis. Correct answer accessed and retrieved, “discussion” is ended and they return to checking their emails and social media notifications.”

Corbin learned to outgrow his overly sentimental view that his job is to “lead them toward any beautiful thing, any richer way of life.” He is a descendent of the Old University. The one that didn’t have any relationship to the economy because it was for those already so well-off they could pursue knowledge out of genuine curiosity. His modern students are clients. The administrators take students’ money, pay the professors, and stick the two in the same room together. He “holds the key to professional success, to good salaries, respectability, and—perhaps above all—to not being perceived as failures in the game of life.”

In the good ol’ days, the days of Genghis Khan’s Mongolia, it took the tangible force of violence to get masses of people to behave in ways they would otherwise not, and the more abstract forces of status and shame were mere collateral forces. Today, that hierarchy is inverted. Nobody is holding a gun to his students’ heads. They’re being pushed around by the forces of status and shame. And they wouldn’t be there in Corbin’s classroom if it were otherwise. Corbin tells his colleagues they are like “conveyor belts of information” and that their students:

“simply ingest the teachings on hand and emerge from the chrysalis of college as absolutely immaculate Deloitte consultants, Google programmers, and Financial Analysts forged in the womb of the meritocracy, shimmering and slick—young, wide-eyed, open-minded, inoffensive Jamie Dimons. Leaning way the fuck in. Beautiful.”

Overly sentimental professors get concerned about this because they still think their job is to make some heartfelt case to their students as to how the value of education is much deeper than that. The Old University was like this because it was only for those already born into economic security. The New University is a service that sells its clients credentials and economic security (at least in principle), but still retains the imagery and seriousness of the Old University for branding purposes.

Corbin tells his colleagues not to worry that their students are reducing open-ended classroom to a fact-finding exercise. The good news is, he says, “They don’t believe a word they’re saying.”

Students are having open-ended discussions, reading, exploring, and laughing at ideas; just not so much in classrooms anymore. After all, classrooms are training grounds for future careers. They are no longer safe spaces to express ideas that people tend to lose their careers over these days. Corbin goes as far as alluding to samizdat, the production and distribution of dissident literature under Soviet communism.

“In this contemporary case, there is no concerted program developing yet, no new fleshed-out ethos to counter the dominant narrative,” he writes, “It’s mostly just skepticism and alienation, the sense that whatever is really, deeply true and important, this isn’t especially it.” He believes that “meme culture” is the new samizdat, and he’s not completely wrong. Corbin overemphasizes one aspect of memes. That they often resonate with the observer, making them feel understood and not isolated. Many of the memes he describes highlight they kind of despair and exhaustion, and fetishization of death that his students feel playing the status-seeking game at university. This is only one face of it, however. The reason why memes do resonate with their observers is because they act like compressed files that store so much more information than what's on the surface. Cliches, chants, slogans, and Trump Tweets™ are memes in this way. They convey another layer of information to those who are “in on the joke.”

However, there is perhaps one or two spaces producing a coherent counternarrative, and this space happens to produce a lot of memes. But the memes are just the static – the noise. Corbin doesn’t see it because lots of other spaces also produce memes, so what he calls “meme culture” doesn’t exist. He’s distracted by the noise, and conflating multiple things that have nothing to do with each other.

Out of all the spaces which produce memes, there is one space we can refer to as “the Antiversity”, and in addition to its memes, it produces entire texts. You can read one of those texts here, an essay called “The Mandate of Heaven”, written in 2009 and already addresses the themes Corbin claims to privy to 10 years later.

It's part of a genre called Neoreaction, or the Dark Enlightenment - sort of an homage to the original counter-Enlightenment that took place alongside the Enlightenment-Enlightenment. If you read these texts, you might notice another resemblance to the "meme culture" which Corbin refers to; namely, that they often appear to say outrageous things for the shock value. It's often a protective mechanism for when these writers tell us outrageous things they believe in earnest - the kind of thing you might find in the genuine samizdat of its day. You might need professionally calibrated irony detectors to avoid both the false positives and false negatives in this regard.

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