The Z Man’s column today talks about grifting. In the comments, there’s lots of speculation as to what the grifter gets out of it. After all, there are lots of grifts — a commenter mentions three-card monte — where the daily take is no better, and probably worse, than you’d get from a McJob. But for the grifter, doing something, anything, that isn’t a payroll job seems to be half the point….
I suggest that the answer is something like something like ketman. It means “paying lip service to official ideology while secretly subverting it.” It’s a sour sort of pleasure, but believe me, it is a pleasure. I did it for years.
I got into the higher ed biz fully intending to practice what Milosz calls “aesthetic ketman.” I loved my subject, but my subject was recondite enough, I figured, that I could keep the SJW bullshit to a bare minimum. I don’t remember what they called “intersectionality” back then, but whatever it was, I’d just make a few brief nods to it, then get on with my work in relative peace. Throw a few quotes from Foucault, Judith Butler, Gayatri Spivak, and the like in my dissertation intro, and that was that.
The problem, though, is that the sour pleasure of ketman is addictive, and like any addiction, you need to keep upping the dose to feel the same effect.
My first few years in grad school, anyone who cared to look could’ve easily spotted me as a secret shitlord. For one thing, I was the only guy in the whole damn town who actually looked happy. For one thing, professing is a 24/7 job — that’s “24 hours a week, 7 months a year,” and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. All that free time is lovely, especially in a college town with 24-hour everything and scads of scantily clad undergraduate eye candy.
But more importantly, there’s the pleasure of ketman. So long as I make a few radical noises, I can get you sheep to believe anything I say. I used to tell people I studied transgendered potato farmers in the Kenyan uplands. I told this obnoxious girl from the Gender Studies department my dissertation was on resistance strategies of Eskimos in the Waffen-SS. I cited Alan Sokal’s hoax paper on the social construction of gravity in every seminar taught by a radical feminist, and no one ever called me on it. Anyone who thinks I’m kidding obviously hasn’t been on campus in the last 20 years or so. It was fucking hilarious….
….for a time. And then it got sad, then nauseating, because I eventually realized I was no different from the fools who swallowed my bullshit. It doesn’t matter if you’re being exquisitely ironic when you tell a room full of freshmen that “gender is a social construction.” They can’t recognize irony anyway, and even if they could, parroting the phrase “gender is a social construction” is still required to pass the class. More importantly, what if they did recognize it? I’m up there thinking I’m a shitlord, speaking truth to power to anyone smart enough to figure it out, but all they see is another fat, middle-aged sellout parroting nonsense. If I were serious about my shitlordery, they think, then I’d quit. But I don’t quit, which must mean my so-called “principles” are worth… what? We’ve already established you’re a whore, madam; now we’re just haggling over the price.
Ketman fails on its own terms, I guess I’m saying, because there’s no way to use The System without The System also using you, and economies of scale being what they are, The System always wins. But until you figure that out, ketman lets you go on being a happy cog in the machine, because you’re really sticking it to the rubes…
Either way it ends in disillusion. It’s like the Revolutionary’s Dilemma: even if you believe your own bullshit, you come to hate the people who believe in you. They’re either dumb sheeple who’ll believe anything, or they’re even dumber sheeple who are too stupid even to grok that. The only way out is to approach ketman not as a survival strategy, but as an identity. I couldn’t… but then again, I had a choice. The people Milosz describes didn’t, so go read the book if you want to see how it turns out.