Reflections on the Business of the University

Right out of high school I had the incredible privilege of bypassing the immediate continuation of my (academic) education. Having played the guitar since the days of preteen awkwardness while developing quite the extensive taste in a variety of sundry obscure rock music—not to mention whipping up from such an early age an invariable admiration for jazz improvisation—I managed to place myself in a touring band the summer after graduation, a band that already had under its wing a handful of albums on the rack, a song on a video game, not to mention being on the precipice of touring Europe. Touring Europe… I was eighteen. Fuck college, I said.

This decision set in motion a series of events that, to this day, I still marvel over with a nostalgic Yeah, I did that. But allow me a moment to briefly detail the rather autodidactic experience of living on the edge as a kid with a guitar, crammed in a van with drugs, booze, books and a bunch of older guys who would drive that tour-van from city to city, show after show, as if the whole point of playing those shows, each one farther and farther away from the tour’s initial show, was to attain some sort of nominal “success,” some thing that, to bundle it all up in a platitude, was “larger than life.”

OK, so there we were, a Band, chasing that Thing by van, the tour itinerary our map of our America—a constellation of metropolitan nightclubs and basement shows from shoreline to shoreline, playing these shows, standing on a different stage night after night, triumphant, slicing the air with guitars while lacerating the pre-set loitering din-of-the-crowd with our angular riffs: atonal sounds being pushed out with brusque overdrive through coils, transducers, tubes and capacitors—volume knob cranked to fucking 13. All the while, backstage, we were pandering to the profligate capers that, all things being equal, accompanied the career of a smalltime touring band.

One night we found ourselves on the outskirts of Vegas, post-show, post-casinos, all crammed into one of those motel rooms that allows the term frugal to freely resonate with the echo of its euphemistic ring. My little innocent New Englander self huddled with the rest of the guys, peering into a shower stall, would you look at that… a crack pipe. Bemused as we were, the pipe seemed to radiate mystery steeped in stigma and caution, that little makeshift tube of glass and plastic refracting the fluorescence of the bathroom lighting. A real crack pipe… we all seemed to whisper through nerved-up grins, rictus with curiosity and mischief; and yet there wasn’t an inch of ironic distance that could erase from the imagination the squalid reality that was probably all bound up in the use-history of that little thing.

It was my first time ever in Vegas. I couldn’t tell if my adrenalin was rushing because of an incomparable excitement occasioned by a unique blend of the city’s architectural aesthetic and its seamy nightlife, or because earlier in the night we had gotten swindled by the club owner, who decided to forego both our rider (which the promoter had promised us) and our guarantee for the night. For twenty or so minutes we all huddled around in the club owner’s small office. Dimly lit by a single Catalina Green Banker’s Lamp, cigarette smoke drifted around the contours of the room with cartoonish pace, sluggish, coalescing somewhere high above our heads. The more we demanded our fair share of payment, the more we found ourselves being surrounded by older gentlemen with crossed arms who looked like they knew nothing about the music industry and everything about making sure things went the club owner’s way. They stood silently, casting their gaze at us from beneath sinister looking brow-shadows, their foreheads corrugated with stress wrinkles, their brows dipping noseward. We were given an ultimatum: Leave, or we would find ourselves at the receiving end of fists and a baseball bat.

Vegas is a frenetic symptom of capitalism; an oasis of electrified sights and sounds surrounded by what Johannes Thumfart once described as ‘an icy desert of whatever-ness and ignorance.’ Densely populated by a breed of folks who believe they will be given what they want and will take what they want if they are not given it, Vegas is a sort of lurid caricature of Wall Street. Each year the “Entertainment Capital of the World” holds countless appointments for cash-strapped folks looking to collect free money at the expense of losing money. The whole thing seems sort of Faustian: bargaining with the Devil under the illusion of securing whatever one desires. Looking back now, it wasn’t excitement I felt in that city, but a sort of asphyxiation felt from the combination of blistering heat and the daily despair of hordes of gamblers disavowing the delusive constitution of their own elation; evidenced of course by the legion of pawn shops flanking the streets of Vegas. I remember crossing paths with a family on their way into a casino while on my way back to the motel room, it was some time around four in the morning. They had two young kids with them who looked no older than the age of six, their eyes glassy and vacant from lack of sleep, deprived of their night’s quota of dreams. I remember thinking then about something philosopher Gilles Deleuze once wrote: ‘If you’re trapped in the dream of the Other, you’re fucked.’

And so back to that little crack pipe we found in our motel room. After a few minutes of daring each other to take a hit off the thing—which, for the record, no one actually did, so I guess we lose some Motley Crüe points or something—we assumed it once belonged to some forlorn person who, trapped within the coordinates of the American Dream, perhaps came to Vegas with big plans, and got screwed.

Continuing with the theme of tawdry band experiences, there was also the time in L.A. when our roadie’s birthday provoked a crass move… Roguishly stringing him along by the arms, a couple individuals from the band dragged Birthday Boy to the van they had parked in a dark lot. They opened the side door and presented him his birthday present. Standing there in half silhouette, hipshot, with a cigarette hanging from her lower lip, the ash unflicked causing it to droop like an elephant’s trunk, with a gruff voice she spoke only two words: Happy birthday. The result was not what anyone privy to the initial plotting had anticipated. What was previously thought of as a gift that could not undergo any sort of unwrapping by dint of moral principle alone certainly did undergo an “unwrapping,” in certain respects. Sliding the door closed, we gave them their ten minutes.

At this time I was keeping a journal; reading some of the entries now, a little over a decade later, elicits a big ol’ visceral Oh jeez …  Oh my God… accompanied by, as Pynchon once phrased it when explaining his reaction to his earlier writing, ‘physical symptoms we shouldn’t dwell upon.’ Even playing the role of innocent bystander, it took a long time for me to shrug off the feeling of a strange shame, the guilty-by-association kind, following that night: a lesson learned about the darker curiosities lurking within seemingly juvenile antics; curiosities delusively distanced from the superego constraints that we all thought kept us in check, in balance; though, paradoxically, the more we obeyed our superegos the more we were guilty of our curiosities.

At the onset of my second tour, I had just finished reading Henry Miller’s Black Spring, before that Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie. Next up was Kerouac’s On the Road. Typical stock reads synecdochic of a young and naïve trope of a man at that age, going through what I was going through. My girlfriend at the time, an undergrad majoring in English and environmental science, had seen me off, presenting me with both a hardcover notebook for me to chronicle my travels in and, a copy of, what do you know, Travels With Charlie, which I left behind having already read it. I never did share with her the text I put on the pages of that notebook, but some of the more tactless anecdotes from those early band-in-a-van excursions—the uglier sides of my youthful, displaced self at the time—came out one night when back from my second tour, undergoing an unpleasant breakup. “You really did that?” “Yeah I did.” “Why would you even do such a thing?” “I don’t know.” The events I partook in, candidly put into heated words, causing her to wince and then cry, becoming more real as I retold them. Once we played a show at Surfside Nightlife in Myrtle Beach during Biker Weekend and—no lie—we found four eight-balls of cocaine lying on the ground right outside the club. Not wanting to cross state lines with this stuff, we decided maybe we could get rid of some at a local strip club. With the little money we made, we bought ourselves “massages” at a nearby massage parlor. Another time, weeks later in Santa Barbara, some of us ended up at an after-hours party … where my I continued to explore infidelity. On the whole, it was my first real experience of breaking a heart. By reverse-engineering love, so to speak, I experienced the powerful influence it can have over peoples’ lives.

Reflection, a punishing business yes, is always able to explain and illuminate the significance of what seems to be in the Evental moment a collection of trivialities. And so those three books I mentioned earlier, they had changed me in a certain way. And a sneaking suspicion has it that it wasn’t just the books but the time and place at which I was reading them too, that produced this change.

All around me I was experiencing language. I didn’t know this then, but take note of what I mentioned above concerning reflection. I see now that language was at the heart of everything that was going on all around me. Whether it was the band’s cant, or the various dialects of the English language morphing region after region—subtle changes in linguistic form like that of the familiar American landscapes around me that, despite their contiguity, just rolled seamlessly into different topographies every hundred miles or so—language seemed to propel the band forward night after night. Sometimes I would day-dream of traveling without having to burn any fossil fuels, imagining what it would look like, sound like, be like if language alone could take us where we needed to go. Though such imaginings could only go so far, for I had no real clue what that kind of travel would look like, sound like, be like, forgetting that even the grand adventures of Leopold Bloom took place in the course of only one day, within the confines of only one city.

Maybe, in a certain sense, we wanted to prove something, or wanted to get away faster and faster from who or what we were attempting to prove this something to, to get out and then to return a little older, and thus a little closer, to attaining that numinous Thing, only to do it all over again with the same if not more intense vigor months later.

The first tour I did with the band occurred only months after the September 11th attacks of 2001. Some of the country’s demographic kept quite the askance set of eyes on us. Watching an old van with license plates from far away—packed tight with a group of young men, unkempt and unshaven, instruments and amplifiers concealed in peculiar looking flight cases—putter into one’s bucolic town for some refueling and a quick bite to eat before driving off must’ve looked menacing at worst suspicious at best to the insular onlooker. I’d be a fibber if I said there were never any altercations along our travels, most of them occurring in the South. Not all, but most. I can’t recall exactly where we were, but one night after a show we were invited by the promoter to a house party. Like most of these affairs, this one was replete with a keg of beer, kids looking to mill with the band, and a bunch of musical equipment set up in the basement—the intent being that maybe the band will play another set, or perhaps, at an even more intimate level, jam with some of the local kids. All in all, these things usually go over well. But at some point in the night, at this particular gathering, things took a turn for the macabre. After about an hour or so of getting started the party was crashed by three unfamiliars who, trying to describe them now, I guess you could say they resembled characters from a Harmony Korine movie—you know the type: misdirected kids of hillbilly parents, donning leather pants, fishnet shirts, platform boots, speaking violence with a southern drawl, so on and so forth. Be that as it may, when the keg eventually ran dry, one of these guys—maybe he was upset over the keg being empty, or maybe he was starving for attention, I’ll never really know—began to strike the keg with a machete. (A fucking machete, who carries a fucking machete with them?) On the last swing the kid let go of the machete’s handle, causing it to bounce off the side of the keg, striking some girl in the forehead, her forehead releasing a torrent of blood as it tore the skin open. The gasps and all the Holy-shit-what-the-fuck?!-reactions cut through, grinding everything to a sudden halt. One of the hosts promptly attended to the girl’s forehead, while a few of us helped clear the place out. As we made our way up the stairs and marshaled people out the front door, lo and behold, out there in the front yard, was another one of those miscreants, punching his dog (I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried), all the while yelling back at those around him who were telling him to stop—“It’s my dog and I’ll hit him if I want.” Three of us, without a moment’s hesitation, jumped on the guy.

It took only a few minutes to pacify the situation. And those who had stuck around went on to enjoy whatever vestiges of a good time were left. But no more than five minutes later those three returned, this time more Badass than before, swinging locks on chains above their heads, slurring unintelligible sounds and utterances at the tops of their lungs. At that point, as far as I can recall, everyone who was still left at the party grabbed anything that wasn’t tied down and went into “battle.”

The brawl lasted about a minute or two before the police arrived. It was enough time, however, for several members of both our band and the band we were touring with to receive some serious blows from locks, which required medical attention, not just stitches but staples, too.

It was fascinating, I remember thinking to myself, that a conciliatory breaking-down of class barriers was able to occur right in the palms of my hands, in a book, and yet, in the real world, real people had a difficult time grappling with making this actually happen. A paradox of language came into view: on the one hand, language united people; on the other, it divided people. It wasn’t until years later when I took a college course on Wittgenstein that I discovered that language was more than just a string of words put to use to communicate. It’s an integral component of a symbolic order that structures our reality for us and thus defines for each one of us a way of life. A practice. Language, in many respects, is just a way for one to articulate their fixed belief in an ideology that they will then defend by kicking and screaming that it is not an ideology but—“it is the way things are.” And some people just don’t want to change the way things are, despite the fact that life is not static, not some fixed coordinate on an historical graph.[1] To quote Brecht, that Beautiful Soul who, God bless him, put the Fourth Wall under demolition: “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the same.”

And so imagine for a moment what it was like for us during the Spring of 2001, pulling into some rural town in the South, the torrid air almost viscous, the whole sick crew of us flamboyantly spilling out of the van, garbed in haunch-hugging denim and tight tees, wearing wing-tips, our noggins fleeced with shaggy mops, some of us wearing horn-rimmed glasses. To the locals we looked like a bunch of… I remember this one time, our van breaking down in The Middle of Nowhere, west Texas. We had to wait on the side of the road for more than two hours in 100º+ heat for a tow to get us to the nearest garage; meanwhile Texans drove by with every passing minute, indifferent. Perhaps judging. We ached to be back in Austin. That is what homesickness meant for us in that given circumstance.

That band went on for another couple years. Ending with such a stroke of bathos it’s still unclear whether to laugh at or damn the entire demise. There came a point along what some of us now refer to as The Odyssey when, suddenly, we realized that the world around us was operating like a machine. It needed maintenance, oil and grease, repairs, the whole nine yards. Why didn’t we ever recognize this before? Lewis Mumford saw it; Schumpeter recognized it; it made Hobbes excited, so excited he wet himself, more than once. Regardless, there was a sort of centrifugal force pulling at us: remain itinerant, an outlier outfit, drifting artists chasing a fever dream; or join the masses and help develop this economic megamachine. Some of us really got torn in two by this dilemma.

The band eventually dissolved, it had eaten our money, our patience, and for some, their sanity, landing one member bankrupt, mentally unhinged and temporarily vacationed at a hospital. Another member fled out West to keep chasing the dream, thereafter ringing the globe high on a pharmacopeia of pills, filtering the world through a Rockstar’s id, years later reconciling the past in a rehab facility where he would get clean before heading off to law school. Another returned to Boston to finish his college education, while a couple of us refused to give up the dream. And so we pushed forward. Fevered, sweating, struggling. Eventually parting ways.

I stuck with the whole routine for a few more years after that. It wasn’t until the latter years of the band I last toured with when I realized that all that time playing shows I was in fact using the band, the escapes, the van, all of it, as a sort of roving phrontistery. I never hit the road without a couple books to read, without some sort of notebook to write in. I found myself holing up in the van after shows, reading, writing; shaping opinions of the places I had visited, the people I had met, into actual ideas and perspectives; developing a personal Weltanschauung[2] while at the same time suffering from a deeply personal weltschmerz.[3] The distance I had put between institutional academics and myself started to call forth another sort of homesickness.

Across the tracks, so to speak, there was an entirely different world. I learned right away when I got to college that not everyone appreciates the efforts required for learning. I often found myself filing in to packed classrooms, day after scheduled day, only to find coveys of students not living in this world but living in Facebook and text messages, in television shows and video games, living anywhere other than in these particular circumstances at these particular moments. Occasionally, someone would shake free from their abstractions, if only for a brief moment, to “nibble upon the outward crust” of whatever subject the class was about.

I don’t blame these kids though. I can’t. They’re just not the ones to blame.

William Torrey Harris, US commissioner of education from the Laissez-Faire days of 1889 to 1906, once wrote that ‘ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual. The great purpose of school … should [be to] develop the power to withdraw from the external world.’

Has much really changed since the days of Harris? Technologically speaking—absolutely. Culturally speaking? Yes. Ideologically? Not very much so. And I have to also ask, has the relationship between the University and industry, between scholasticism and capitalism, not gravely molded into its own shape the relationship between one’s experiences and their practices? One thing that shouldn’t go without mention is that, such a partnership demands, with incessant effort, the conflation of the imaginative with the commercial. In effect, with no other viable option these days than to partake in this type of social arrangement, such a force logically reduces one’s passions and one’s talents to mere fractions of revenue and profits—What do you think the point of touring was? Sure, for us it was all about the music, the traveling, the lifestyle. But for our record label, for our booking agent(s), for the club owners—though I’m sure many of these folks were also in it for the music—the fact remains that the music was always, for the most part, save for a few exceptional moments, treated like a commodity.

And so, in a capitalist world, the uniqueness of the individual goes only so far as their talents can be appropriated and exploited by the forces of Capital. A painter becomes a graphic designer for Boeing; a writer becomes a copy editor for Monsanto; a musician writes jingles for Applebee’s—and so on. Everything else is mere exception. This is why I can’t really blame those students who don’t take their education seriously. They’re not taken seriously. Their talents and passions, their dreams and aspirations—none of it is taken as seriously as the social program that prepares them to become mere parts of an economic megamachine. And when one’s unique human qualities are minimized to general objective quantities, through such a transition there results a sort of byproduct, an entropic addendum so to speak, that leaves its residue on reality, in the form of a lack. One is thus left with no other option than to sell their creative talents, their labor, in exchange for money, so to buy back in the form of some commodity that very thing that seems to be missing; though what is missing can never be fulfilled by any commodity to be bought.

Personally, I thought this lack could be filled by going to college—naïvely unaware that, all the while, I had been taking out loans to buy yet another commodity: an education sold to me at a price I can only hope to pay back through selling my labor. And so at a time when capitalism is a metonymy for economy, and when the economy has taken precedent over our lived experiences, the only real figure of capital I have come to experience after college is in the form of irrepayable debt. Sure, the University offers up some invaluable resources: libraries, unique social circles, great teachers and so on. But on the whole, the brunt of rewarding life lessons may actually occur outside of the classroom, outside of one’s own home, on the road, in a different place in a different landscape. Experiencing ourselves experiencing the world in which we live. And these experiences do not have to be bought. Just had.


[1] And perhaps it’s gratuitous of me to mention, but it’s of my strong opinion that one should come to learn and appreciate that different ways of life often throw off the balance of one’s particular way of life. And sometimes we need to lose a little balance in our lives, so we can put a little dance in our step.

[2] German for one’s overarching philosophy, one’s general worldview.

[3] Viz., a sort of generalized sentimental pessimism, which, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, became “fashionable in 18th-century Romanticism.

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