Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight

The owl drawing above was my submission for the STPEC program sweatshirt when I was in college at UMass-Amherst. It's a dadaist Hegel joke. Get it? Owl of Minerva? Duck? Quack? I still think it's pretty damn funny, even if no one else does.

Social Thought and Political Economy was an interdisciplinary major designed to teach critical thinking and offer a well-rounded progressive education. We got red stars pinned on us during our graduation picnic. Seriously.

We were obnoxious little lefty know it alls who were drunk on political theory that often verged on the incomprehensible. Ever try reading Habermas? Can't say I recommend it.

I understood just enough Hegel to be dangerous, although one of my better papers was on the usage of dialectic by Simone deBeauvoir and Franz Fanon. Then as now, I was a bit of a contrarian. I alienated one of my more doctrinaire Marxist professors my arguing that the seeds of Stalinism were there with Lenin, and that the Kronstadt Massacre signaled the end of the true revolution. I also outraged my anarchist professors by arguing that the ends of the revolution in Spain were corrupted by the means of violence.

I've since come to understand that this was a ridiculous argument, even though at some level it might be true. They were leftists up against fascists before fascism was even a dirty word, and most of the western world would have happily seen them annihilated without a fight.

Still, it wasn't like I really knew anything. I recall being halfway through a course on the Spanish Civil War before realizing that the Republicans were the good guys. Similarly, I was well into a critical theory survey course — struggling through Marcuse, Lukacs, Benjamin, Horkheimer, and Adorno — before I got the difference between "form" and "content." But I knew how to pronounce Loo-kotch and Ben-ya-meen, and that, apparently, was enough.

While I'm sure all of this shaped my thinking more than I know, the stuff that made me who I am happened mostly outside of class. As a student activist I learned all about pulling off "actions," and discovered I could be a leader. I found my voice as a writer through a weekly column in the Daily Collegian, which was one of the better student newspapers in the country. I got the publishing bug when, in my junior year, I used the access to equipment at my typesetting job to start critical times, a collectively edited leftist monthly newspaper.

Weirdly, I got A's in most of my theory courses. I credit grade inflation with getting me through college with undiagnosed ADHD. My final critical theory project was a Brechtian theater piece that I don't remember much about. Yet, I clearly recall another student's project. It was a piece on racism performed with potatoes. The hero was named Masha, and the central conflict came when her kid wanted to go to summer camp with his friend Jimmy, the peach.

Speaking of incomprehensible, the owl cartoon comes from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. "The owl of Minerva flies only at midnight" means something to the effect of "Wisdom is inspired by crisis." So ... Duck!

Maybe it loses something in the explanation.

See also:
The Beginnings
Young, Gifted, and Miserable
Everybody Must Get Stoned
Life Begins at Seventeen
The Year of Living Dangerously
The Air Force Years: Part One
The Air Force Years: Part Two
The Air Force Years: Part Three
The Air Force Years: Part Four
The Air Force Years: Part Five
Working Poor In Waltham: Part One
Working Poor In Waltham: Part Two
Birth of a Student Radical
Harvest of Shame
The Owl of Minerva Flies at Midnight
The Road to Street
The Street Years: Part One
The Street Years: Part Two


Kathleen O. said...

I think I remember that Brechtian piece. I think it was really good, actually. :-)

Madlyn said...

Very worthwhile data, lots of thanks for this post.