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Back to School, or, How we never really leave school, even if we want to......

Updated: Sep 27, 2021

At every opportunity I try to spread the word on this remarkable photo essay on Bennington College in the 80s. I won't be coy; I like many aspects of the culture of this particular school in this era, even the so-called decadence and wildness.

Above all, it strikes me that for these students and faculty, aesthetics was everything, certainly more than rules, as traditionally understood.

Bennington College Photo Essay

Much like that article to which I linked, for this post we are going back to the 80s!!

I was the only incoming freshman at New England Conservatory of Music to not have to take the normally required English 1 class.

Jim Klein and Sandra Joshel took me aside and remarked how well written my essay was.

Jim Klein teacher and inspirer
Sandra Joshel.... educator, authoress, and inspirer

Understand too that music school at that time was closer to a vocational school. Jim Klein told me that he found my piece so refreshing.

"Half the essays were actually about the New Coke!"

The essay question, if I remember accurately, was to name a recent invention of importance and whether the invention or development would bode well or ill for the future.

Well I wrote on the computer (all the better that I had never sat in front of one, and would not for at least ten to fifteen years) and though no record exists of what I wrote my position was what would later count as the "skeptic" position.

While I did take pains to say that I was not anti-modern and therefore not a strict luddite, I did anticipate that this development of the computer into all aspects of life would at least have as many negative consequences as good ones in the future, and I also added, more boldly possibly more negative ones on balance.

Without knowing the relevant literature I was essentially arguing against Nicholas Negroponte, who had not yet written Being Digital, and John Perry Barlow who had already staked out a tech optimist position.

Little did I know that in the 90s and 00s a whole crop of very successful business people in Silicon Valley would put to work a conviction precisely the opposite of mine, and essentially remake the world in their image.

Of course this in no way disproves what I was writing. (You might be surprised to know that my position has not changed on this issue since the 80s!)

Because they believed in the computer and its potential for good they did realize good fruits from their passion. That, however, is wholly separate from the question of whether we should all be forced to merge together into this single and singular whole - even if the idea of such a thing appeals to our better angels of harmony and unity.

My concern was with the development of what Neil Postman would go on to call Technopoly, in his must read book of the same name: the totalitarian control of an entire society by technology, which Postman distinguished from culture itself.

Neil Postman (1931 – 2003) holding a TV aerial

35 years ago, he predicted the political & social implosion we have witnessed in 2020

That is, culture becomes subservient to tech.

Or to be more precise, mathematical calculation and measurement, or in a word, algorithms, start to govern daily life. (Sound familiar?)

That freshman year was miraculous for me because of how Sandra Joshel inspired me. She asked me what I had been reading lately.

She said, "Mitchell you need to be reading 'better' and more 'difficult' work', those two words being her own (she always called everything texts, including movies and t.v.) and she proceeded to make me a reading list.

This is part of that list:

For further context on Derrida here is a wonderful interview with Gayatri Spivak on Derrida.

Admittedly Joshel always said she was a Marxist and a feminist and I felt I could relate to her much more than even some of my fellow students who were musicians.

With music of course during rehearsal or performances things were beautiful but I could not relate very well psychologically or socially (with one or two exceptions). Now at this time I too was a Marxist and a feminist so it was comforting to meet an instructor who shared those political sympathies.

I was an acolyte of hers for a time.

I remember vividly I was reading this book on filmmaker Nicholas Roeg by Joseph Lanza, FRAGILE GEOMETRY, the first edition of which I still own.

She photocopied that entire book after announcing, "this is very illegal!"

Yet she of course was teaching Nicholas Roeg's films to us, even BAD TIMING! She told me "Mitch, you MUST see "Bad Timing!"

Speaking of timing, one of my research projects under Joshel was an investigation into capitalist and patriarchal concepts of time and the shortcomings of these. (Again these were my views then which are not exactly identical to mine now; we are in 1987, after all).

One of my achievements in those two years of which I am proud was an essay on Nicholas Roeg's movie DON'T LOOK NOW.

Though the essay unfortunately no longer exists, it was this comparison of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, the married couple in the film and how their two different experiences of lived time contributed to their different fates as characters.

Nicolas Roeg , Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland on set......

Christie saw time as moving in many directions rather that in one, linear direction; for her time can go forward as much go back in equal measures and this view of her character saved her life.

Her husband was a great art restorer but his view of time moved only in a forward direction. He worked on preserving physical achievements in the past, like the church, but it was about going to the past to bring this into the present.

He was blind to his wife's paranormal claims about their physically deceased daughter, especially after Julie Christie's visits with the two psychics, are important in this regard.

In essence her husband is killed by what I termed "Renaissance, linear perspective" time, which I said was inseparable from his historical construction as "male".

To put it crudely it was a case where he should have listened to his wife.

Roeg would of course return to this theme over and over again, specifically in his INSIGNIFICANCE in which it is Marilyn Monroe teaches Albert Einstein the theory of relativity.

Well now I think what happened with these texts, the kinds of work read usually more by graduate or post graduate students than a lowly undergraduate like myself, is the power of permission.

More often than not people tell themselves that such and such is beyond them or uninteresting, or too difficult or boring, and this becomes a false, self fulfilling prophecy, and those same people don't even bother reading something new or unusual.

If I hadn't read any of these books or seen those Nicholas Roeg movies this podcast would not be half of what it currently is.

Joshel said that it was better to read a better book and she taught me to see difficulty as an actual virtue, as synonymous with pleasure, both aesthetics and intellectual pleasure.

Recently when reacquainting myself with the biography of one of my heroes, Hannah Arendt, I relearned that by a young age she had written a book on Augustine, was trained in Greek and Latin as a young girl, and that she was as interested in theology as she was politics and philosophy.

I do think that, though Arendt is most unique, that this is also simply a personalty type into which I am probably also one of many who fit; but I think it is little understood as we are little understood.

Hannah Arendt

My main hope, of course is that I can transmit some of that very scholarly experience of 1986 and '87 here to this blog in 2021 under duding principle that life is in its own way, a school.

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