Saturday, May 29, 2010

In Which I Wonder When Someone's Going To Ask Me To Stop Sleeping With Waitresses

One of the persistent themes of The Wire is Jimmy McNulty's conviction that he is not just the smartest guy in the room - and it is always a guy - but that, combined with his unfailing sense of what has to be done, entitles him to decide what is done. The chain of command is an obstacle to be overcome rather than an institution that, however grudgingly, has to be respected. It's not enough, notice, to think you're the smartest guy in the room. Freamon, at least as good a detective as McNulty, nails him in one episode in the third season. McNulty comes in on his day off to find Freamon and Prez working, prepping something, and starts rhapsodising their collective capabilities, bigging himself, but not just himself, up. Freamon, having asked him what he's doing in on his day off and been told since his ex-wife has the kids, he's nothing else to do, gives McNulty a lecture which ends with the warning that 'the job will not save you'. And indeed it's one of the lessons of that season that policework, or at least the kind of policework involved in highly targeted investigations into the leadership of drug gangs, is not going to stop Jimmy McNulty's life from being deeply unsatisfying to him.

One of the roots of McNulty's attempt to find satisfaction through bringing down Stringer Bell and his ilk is surely the frustration at the failure of his superiors to do about these figures beyond ensuring that no-one really has time to do much more than clear up the messes their underlings leave behind. In a way, what Freamon is urging him to do is see past that: it's by using the opportunity it gives him to save it that McNulty is trying to get the job to save him; redemption through self-sacrifice for the greater good. The experience of institutional imperatives distant from a moral life as it is lived isn't the only thing that can give you the sense not only that you know best but ought to go round telling people so, however common it is as a source of that feeling of entitlement. Another of generating it, I think, is through sympathetic relationships of apparent equality between people who at least ought, as far as knowledge goes, to be unequal.

Oxbridge tutorials, at least in the arts and humanities, seem to follow this model. By encouraging students to understand their work as attempts at answers to questions present in serious academic scholarship, and then responding to it and them Socratically, accepting them as having equal standing in the argument, when in fact of course almost any undergraduate is going to be less capable than most of those who might teach them, Oxbridge tutorials are almost structured to make them over-confident in their own abilities. If it only takes three days reading and two and half thousand words to master the mind-body problem, then what else is not within your grasp? I remember reading somewhere, perhaps in the comments here, that PPE, which as the degree I took and the degree I taught on is upmost in my mind, was designed to enable civil servants to provide ministers with a briefing overnight. At least there the costs of overconfidence, if not immediately obvious, will quickly become clear, whereas the tutorial is almost designed to avoid that; the relationship between tutor and student, whilst not always friendly, has to at least be civil and is very unlikely to result in anyone getting sacked.

There are of course other pathologies of Oxbridge undergraduates. As well as being over-confident, they tend I think to be unnecessarily adversarial. I do this as much as anyone else (he says, generalising from a sample size of one). One thing that is almost certain to annoy about other people's work, for example, is the absence of a sense of conflict from it: not in the sense of an abstraction away from the conditions of politics in general, although that can annoy me, but in the sense of an abstraction away from the conditions of politics in the discipline. Writing that smoothes over disputes, buries profound disagreements under mealy-mouthed attempts at consensus as if those meant to read it were children unable play together nicely, rather than adults with carefully formed and articulated positions on the matter in hand: this, more than almost anything else my colleagues do, annoys the shit out of me. It would be a mistake though, to build your life around that or any other set of annoyances, around an attempt to extirpate their sources. Like Freamon says, the job will not save you.

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