Friday, June 20, 2014

Piketty, Shakespeare's King Lear, and reading our way out of inequality

Thomas Piketty concludes his 577 page Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard UP, 2014), on a depressing note.

Because the rate of return on capital always will exceed income growth (expressed "r>g") we will always suffer from increasing inequality of wealth. Those with money and capital always will make more, and make more more quickly than even the sturdiest entrepreneur. "The past," he says, thus "devours the future" (571).

The only modern historical events that have interrupted this ever increasing divergence of wealth are WWI, the great Depression, and WWII. For a brief period, Piketty shows, these catastrophes compressed the wealth gap and for those of us lucky enough to grow up in the post-War west, and gave the illusion of some degree of equality.

But two World Wars and a Depression are strong medicine.

As an economist, he suggests a "progressive annual tax on capital" (572) as a way to curb inequality without slowing income growth and "primitive accumulation."

As a sentient being in the world today, however, he also knows the likelihood of getting the political support necessary for such a tax is nil.

Piketty does not speculate much, though, on why there is no political will -- from the majority on the bottom -- to tax the very few on top.

There is no STEM field that can provide an answer to that question.

 Fear not. I am here to help with yet another S(hakespeare)TEM crisis.

Shakespeare, or a close reading of Shakespeare, I think, can provide an answer -- and rather quickly.

There is no will for a progressive tax on capital simply because people identify with those "above" them. We do this as children when we want to be like our parents. We do this as seventh graders when we want to be like the pretty, popular girl. We do this when we emulate our bosses at work (if we are at a job where we want to "move up").

And we do this when we vote.

In my regional home, Macomb County, MI, people did this en masse in 1980 when traditional Democrats -- union born, bred and fed -- turned on their own party to become "Reagan Democrats."

Why? Reagan inspired an image of what Macomb Democrats wanted to be: American cowboys, independent, virile and so on.

I can't blame them.

Everyone admires those above them, even Shakespeare.

For all his talents, the man wanted nothing more than to procure a "coat of arms," a sign that he was, in fact, an aristocrat -- even when he wasn't. Paradoxical as it sounds, aristocrats were at the top of the social order in the Renaissance and you had to be born an aristocrat. But, gradually, over time, you could buy your way in to the "class."

This selling of aristocracy was one of the reasons the world no longer considers aristocracy a "real" thing.

This is no where more clear than in Shakespeare's King Lear -- a production of which is being staged at Stratford, Ontario this year.  

In that play, Shakespeare makes an audience side -- not with their own class --  but with the aristocracy.  There are heroes and villains in the play, and because of our transhistorical desire to be those above us, we don't even realize when we are prompted to root against ourselves just as unions in Macomb County Michigan did in voting for Ronald Reagan.

Here, for example, is the first soliloquy in the play by Edmund, the Bastard son of Gloucester, and one of the playwright's most famous villains (along with Iago, Aaron the Moor, etc.).

As a Bastard, Edmund has no legal rights. He finds this intolerable as he knows he is worth as much in terms of merit. Indeed, the play quite consciously supports this self-assessment. He is skilled, clever, physically attractive (all the women in the play love him). Early on, then, he rages, like a good American should, against propertied rights, class structures, illegitimate laws.

 No Kings for him!

What matters, he argues, is not who you are or where you come from but your abilities.

Indeed, I would stage him in a Captain America suit while he delivers this speech that concludes with a cry for Bastards that could be easily found at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty ("Give us your tired, your hungry.....").

For quick reading "Wherefore" = "Why."

Thou, nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moon-shines
Lag of a brother? Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?
Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed,
Go to the creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake? Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,--legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

In short, Edmund sees a legal, political injustice and decides to right that injustice through his own independent actions and create a world where merit, not birth order or rank, matter.

Did I mention in this play, though, he is the "villain"?

Shakespeare's dramaturgy guides an audience -- even a modern American audience -- to sympathize not with those with whom we share comparable situations or values, but with those above us.

Instead, of Edmund or the ambitious servant Oswald, we come to appreciate the King, his daughter Cordelia, the Duke of Kent -- all figures who believe we are lesser beings.

Fantastically enough, Shakespeare's characters would have thought him a lesser being, as he was not born an aristocrat. Yet he makes us weep for them.

Because of Shakespeare's sympathies, and Edmond's actions, the whole world of the play collapses backwards in to history, it collapses -- as Richard Halpern wrote in his book intriguingly titled The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation -- "back into feudalism." A play that began with a very modern bureaucratic structure, a peaceful transfer of power, originally staged in front of an audience that was increasingly modern, asks us to fall backwards, to let as Piketty says "the past devour the future." The play's final resolution is as primal as it gets: brother to brother, hand to hand combat between Edmund and his "legitimate" brother Edgar. [Spoiler alert: Edmund loses, but the spirit that inspires him wins big in history -- King Lear was first performed in 1606, a scant 14 years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock].

But to my point: the reason the play collapses back in to history is the same reason we won't vote for a progressive tax on capital. That could be us, we think, up on the top with Bill Gates and King Lear! Like Shakespeare, we identify with those above us -- always.

We won't address the problem of inequality til we become better readers of Shakespeare.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Our S(hakespeare)TEM crisis and school dress codes: "My daughter's legs are nothing like spaghetti straps..."

This essay is organized around a piece of literature, something eschewed by the nation's new educational standard: the Common Core. And it has little do with STEM. But I do think, as I am a university professor, it may help get some "college" -- and even "career" ready.

Here is Shakespeare's sonnet number 130, familiar enough I hope:

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

Technically speaking, the sonnet has 14 lines, divided in to an "octave" (8 line chunk) and a "sestet," (6 line chunk) an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme.

Remember this quasi-technical stuff from English class?

Let me skip quickly over that try to explain some of the poem's more striking connections to our current world and, in particular, our schools and, even more specifically, our public school dress codes which are prompting me to throw a Project Runway type fit in these last days of warm weather school.

The Shakespearean sonnet follows the thematic concerns of the Petrarchan sonnet (In the middle of the 16th century, courtiers Wyatt and Surrey actually "invented" the English sonnet by translating the older Italian, Petrarchan sonnet -- the main difference being the latter has an abbacddceffe rhyme scheme).

Like the Petrarchan sonnet -- which filled the imagination of male courtiers for at least 400 years before it filled the imaginations of English, European, and then American, Australian, and Canadian school boys -- this sonnet addresses a female subject by identifying specific parts (eyes, lips, breasts, etc.).

In that, the "sonnet" is really connected to the French tradition of the "blason" or "blazon" which also dissected females in to body parts.
Here, Shakespeare provides a characteristically original riff on the tradition, refuting the relationship of his girl's "eye" and "lips" and "breasts" to some of their traditional comps: sun, coral, roses, etc.
 Shakespeare's is also quite tame by industry standards.
Many medieval French blasons border on what we would call the pornographic and, in fact, there are some in the world that still have what strikes me as a peculiar taste for them.
But whatever. We all have our peculiarities.

It is important to note that sonnets weren't just "art" that some pursued.

Every "courtier" -- that is every young man of substance and rank -- was taught and expected to master this form just as he was expected to learn to ride, to hawk, to navigate and so on. Indeed, courtiers were expected to write not just sonnets but sonnet "sequences," many, many sonnets. In the English tradition, I prefer Phillip Sydney's.

Literary historians long ago explicated how this poetic form -- which itself was a form of thinking replicated again and again throughout Europe -- created a misogynistic culture. I can't describe the mass of scholarship on this in a blogpost. I can only assure you it exists. It is like the world of science we so often choose to deny because we still, somehow, think our "opinion" matters.

Briefly, if all your young men are taught to think and write about women in terms of "parts" they will never see women as "whole." Or, to be more precise, they will never see women as real people. Young courtiers were force fed the sonnet tradition. And they ate it up.

To complicate things, all men looked up to and tried to imitate or ape the manners of courtiers.

If we push the Petrarchan form back more directly in to its religious context the depth of the problem becomes quickly apparent.

The Petrarchan lady of the sonnet (the original was named "Laura") is never "real" in the sense that she is a real woman, a person. She is either chopped up, highly sexualized body parts or she is, at best, an "idea," an idea of perfect Godliness that a sonneteer should pursue but never reach. She is either Madonna or whore, but never, ever a person. (Apologies if someone once wooed you with a sonnet -- does happen!)

The whole weird matrix is constructed out of an attempt to join Medieval Catholicism and its desire to depict a perfect (non-physical) "love" (St. Augustine's idea of "caritas") and Neo-Platonism, a return to the Greek philosopher who similarly imagined a perfect "realm of ideals" that had nothing to do with bodies.

Female bodies presented a particular obstacle here. Can't live with them, can't live without them -- literally.

Here, for comparison with the sonnet tradition, is my daughter's middle school dress code, a code that is used, I suspect, in schools across the country:

DRESS CODE RESTRICTIONS (restrictions referring to “tops” apply to both shirts and dresses):
NO tank tops, regardless of the width of the straps. Contrary to urban legend, XXXX does not have a two- or three-finger tank top rule. Sleeveless tops must cover the entire shoulder.
NO wide-neck tops which expose shoulders or show tank top, camisole or undergarment straps.
NO tops with spaghetti straps, no tube tops, strapless tops, crop tops, midriff tops or tops which expose any portion of the stomach.
NO short shorts, skirts or dresses. The general rule is that shorts, skirts and dresses must be at least fingertip level or longer when arms are straight down to the side. However, the school reserves the right to use its discretion when determining whether the length is appropriate.
NO baggy pants or shorts that are worn low enough to expose undergarments.
NO clothing that advertises alcoholic beverages, tobacco products or any substance prohibited

The dress code, of course, concentrates on girls, sexualizing bits and pieces of clothing and body parts, literally chopping young girls into pieces as we have been doing for centuries and, with a modern twist, adding strange yoga positions to try out to see if all is well.

 This is how we -- I am tempted to say inadvertently but that is not quite the right word -- invite ALL to look at girls: spaghetti straps and short length first.

If we think this "normal" or "commonsensical" it is only because we have convinced ourselves of its normalcy over hundreds of years of cultural practice. All those sonnets. All that writing. The results of this kind of thinking are routinely shown to be horrifying.

So: If you have a middle school daughter you will note quickly, I think, how she has similarly been chopped in to sexual pieces and how the school literally instructs its teachers and its other students to "look" at girls this way. We can, again, literally "see" no other way to manage this.


We can see no other way in part because we refuse to study and consider our own history, our own language, our own culture, the way the past impinges on the present -- even as we babble on about living in the "21st century" as if we have left human history and ventured on to some new planet.

We don't read our own poems particularly well. Now we don't want to read them at all. We want no traffic with this kind of logic or argument or history because it is dense and hard and difficult -- like trigonometry for some or calculus for others.

And that is an educational crisis. Not a STEM crisis. But a Shakespearean crisis.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

STEM -- not the play -- is the thing!

As a Shakespeare Professor, I am feeling pretty depressed.

STEM -- not the play -- is the thing in America.

STEM, of course, refers to "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" and is usually invoked in calls for economic or educational reform.

Simply put, we always need more STEM.

That is particularly true in my hometown, Detroit, where STEM always has been the thing (that last point might give STEM pushers some pause; organizing a culture exclusively around STEM did not create an "all's well that ends well" scenario here ...but we shall come back to that one).

If I read the papers, watch TV, listen to the local school board, attend to my university administration, heed the Governor, or talk to just about anybody I begin to think that my life's work is, well . . . . not STEM.

I feel useless, obsolete. Like Chrysler.

I feel this most acutely during the state's media fest called the "Mackinac Policy Conference" where calls for more STEM come on an hourly basis from a lovely spot on the planet that, historically speaking, has very little to do with STEM.

Indeed, on Mackinac Island, you can't drive cars, only ride bikes.

Fortunately, for my depressed state, I have pretty powerful coping mechanisms.

Namely, I am a white, heterosexual male, American, 50ish, tall, who grew up post-War in the midwest, and my mother loved me very much. She still does, even though I don't call nearly enough.

This all means I have my political demographic's  extraordinary sense of entitlement, a sense of entitlement based -- as most senses of entitlement are -- on pure dumb historical luck.While not a member of the 1% (English Professor, no family money), I am a member of the luckiest subset of humans to have lived on the planet.

Correspondingly, in the spirit of innovation, disruption, and entrepeneurship that drives true STEM believers I am not going to give in to STEM depression, but re-invent or recast STEM in my own image.

You see, I do think there is a STEM crisis.

But my STEM crisis is a bit different. I think We have a "Shakespeare, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics" crisis.


We simply don't know how to read and interpret scenes, particularly in a dramatic context. The latter is important because all we have at the moment in American politics are dramatic contexts, mini- stage plays being acted out in front us through media.

I don't mean to be overly aggressive in replacing "Science" with "Shakespeare". What you will, as you like it, and all that. I am not anti-science.

When people who call for STEM call for STEM they really don't want what most science folks count as science anyway. Science is expensive, it takes a long time, and it isn't always tied to the market. So I really don't feel like I am offending anyone. Frankly, I could drop the "M" as well as when people call for "Mathematics" they really aren't calling for Mathematicians. People care about pure Math folks as much as they do about Shakespeareans.
But I need the consonant to end the acronym. /So: Math stays.

Engineers, though, I know you have thin skins.  I just don't know what I can do for you. Sorry.

But to the point: We need to get better at reading those plays that are staged for us by STEM crusaders and the best way to get good at reading plays is to study "the guy" himself.

England built an empire around him that lasted a couple hundred years.

Let's see what I can do from Detroit.

Here is my start.

When you hear a phrase or term or a name repeated often enough -- say, like, STEM -- blink. Hesitate. Become self-conscious. Become self-aware. Someone might not be telling the truth. Or they may be simply daft. Or, if you find yourself overusing a term like STEM, you might be going daft. Or, if someone is overusing a term, they might not have language for what they truly want to say and are relying on a single phrase as a kind of shorthand. We all do it. Nothing to be ashamed of, per se, but it isn't a high level of thinking.

Here, for example, is Shakespeare working this out in Richard II.

King Richard has just banished John of Gaunt's son, Bolingbroke, and Gaunt is upset. He is old, and knows if the banishment holds he won't see his son again. So Richard and Gaunt, who began the play as political allies, statesman who conceal their emotions, find themselves at odds. This is particularly hard on Gaunt -- not just because he has just lost a son -- but because he is a high ranking "company" man -- darn near King himself -- not used to being at odds with authority. Expressing rebellious thoughts is not his thing.

Richard asks, "How is't with aged Gaunt?"

Gaunt replies,

"O, how that name befits my composition!
Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old.
Within me grief hath kept a tedious fast,
And who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
For sleeping England long time have I watched;
Watching breeds leanness, leanness is all gaunt.
The pleasure that some fathers feed upon
Is my strict fast - I mean, my children's looks --
And, therein fasting, hast thou made me gaunt.
Gaunt I am for the grave, gaunt as a grave,
Whose hollow womb inherits naught but bones. (2.1.73-83).

Richard immediately asks what an audience would be thinking: "Can sick men play so nicely with their names?"

In so doing, the playwright calls attention to the overuse, and calls attention to the reasons it might be produced here, now. The almost inane speech is tied to Gaunt's history, his current situation, his difficulty, and so on.

Shakespeare helps us read the scene by having Richard call attention to the overuse.

Gaunt is, again, trying to be rebellious. But, at his age, having never been so, he really is not good at it. Your average 8th grader, STEM interest or no, would give a snarkier, more effective answer.

That is the point.

So when you hear STEM over and over again -- for example, "STEM needs to STEM the tide of American's position as the STEM supporting the plant of the globe lest the Chinese STEM our growth" -- think of poor Gaunt trying to engage in a rhetorical battle.

Nothing is really being said when someone says STEM over and over again other than that someone is in a political fight.