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UD is...
"Salty." (Scott McLemee)
"Unvarnished." (Phi Beta Cons)
"Splendidly splenetic." (Culture Industry)
"Except for University Diaries, most academic blogs are tedious."
(Rate Your Students)
"I think of Soltan as the Maureen Dowd of the blogosphere,
except that Maureen Dowd is kind of a wrecking ball of a writer,
and Soltan isn't. For the life of me, I can't figure out her
politics, but she's pretty fabulous, so who gives a damn?"
(Tenured Radical)

Tuesday, May 11, 2004


It’s a tired subject, I know, but remember Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? It was le desordre du jour a few years ago, claiming the purposiveness and joie de vivre of hundreds of thousands of yuppies from the redwood mountains to the gulf stream waters, until its inability to produce an etiology for itself put it to sleep for good.

To be sure, a few perimenopausal party poopers still drag themselves around telling anyone who’ll listen they’ve got CFS; but you haven’t read a thing about it in years, have you? It’s one more past-its-prime pathology-craze.

Yet the cultural unease out of which CFS was confected remains. The sense that Americans are working themselves ragged and fucking up their personal lives but good just so they can buy stuff is in fact more acute now than it was when CFS was riding high.

University Diaries likes to keep an eye out for professors who are thinking seriously about this important trend, and professors who are not.

Under not, there’s Professor David M. Levy of the University of Washington, who says that we need to protect our “psychic space” and “quiet time” in a world choking on “information overload.” To that end, he has introduced into his life plenty of non-screen and non-phone meditative breaks, as he should. End of story.

Not. The man after all is an American, which means he’s gotta market this. Instead of relaxing with his new-found wisdom, Levy’s gone bigtime, hitting up the foundations and organizing a three-day conference (“Information, Silence and Sanctuary“ is the pretentious title) which will, it says here (Washington Post, Monday),“diagnose and prescribe treatment for what is ailing Levy - and, in his view, most of the developed world.”

Well, if that’s all!

I mean, baby, if you’re planning on curing most of the developed world, that’s gotta cut into your mantras.

Barbara Ehrenreich, on the other hand, has the right idea. In a review in last Sunday’s New York Times of a book about a typical screwed-up upper-middle-class American family, she writes that the horrible psychological disorders of the overworked author’s teenage children seem to have a good deal to do with the author himself, who is seldom fully present to be a loving father to them.

Noting first the wise cynicism of American high school kids in regard to the bogus over-diagnosing of the psychology crowd (the diagnosis “bipolar disorder” is now, Ehrenreich notes, “so wildly faddish it’s become a casual term of high school invective”), Ehrenreich concludes her review in this way:

Why is [the book’s author] moonlighting anyway? So they can
afford the pricey suburb where he ''desperately'' wanted to
live because of its high-quality -- read: high-pressure --
public schools. Thus each generation is condemned to
scramble along on its own treadmill, with the gears of
family life making murderously tight connections between
the two.

Throughout his ordeal, [the author] clings to the notion that
mental illness is biologically based -- meaning accompanied
and sometimes caused by physical changes in the brain --
and of course it is. But this does not mean that we are
born with our psychoses, only with the potential to develop
them. Furthermore, the causality works both ways. Not only
can physical conditions in the brain predispose us to
aberrant behavior, but subjectively experienced states, of
stress or rejection, for example, can alter the chemistry
of the brain. So when huge and growing numbers of affluent
young people start displaying the kinds of behavior labeled
A.D.D., depression and bipolar disorder, it may be time to
stop talking about brain chemistry, or even family
pathology, and start looking for ''something in the water''
-- in this case, broad social causes.

Could there be an incoherent rebellion under way against
the relentless pressure to achieve, which kicks in now at
the preschool stage? It may be a clue that the symptoms of
many childhood psychiatric disorders seem to preclude
schoolwork and attendance. Maybe the only problem with the
kids is that they have been watching their own
high-achieving parents, and they have seen where all that