Tuesday, October 2, 2007

And It's Getting Worse

The Chronicle's got a piece by an English grad student about the need for persistence on the job market. Fair enough, I guess. But something jumped out at me.

This grad student starts of by considering the cliche, "Things are never as bad as they seem; they could always be worse." Now, the trick is, how are we supposed to read that little semi-colon? It's sort of inviting us to read it as an abbreviated explicative transition, isn't it? Or some sort of logical relation? "Things are never as bad as they seem--after all, they could always be worse." "Things are never as bad as they seem because they could always be worse." The first claim is the one that needs some explanation--because, really, things really do seem pretty bad, so why should I believe they're not that bad? So then the second claim looks like it's supposed to give just the explanation needed.

But it doesn't. The semi-colon's a total non sequitur. As the job market illustrates in soul-grinding vividness, things are as bad as they seem and it can still get a lot worse.

3 comments:

the unidentified "M" said...

Dear Pseudonymous,

Touché! Leave it to an English grad to use a fine sob-story as a would-be argument justifying the use of a notoriously bad cliché, as you have just pointed out. Why would anybody even want to justify a cliché in the first place? I especially love the self-aggrandizing-through-pity tone that he used as when he claims, “At that point, things were as bad as they could get. This was no ‘my computer crashed and I lost all my work.’” So having your novel stolen is worse? Well fuck all those other PhD candidates who lost ten years of their lives because their computers, and back up hard drives, and flash drives, and CD-ROMs all crashed or were damaged in the flood that could have been prevented had the superintendent of the hole-in-the-wall apartment complex just fixed the leaky faucet on the third floor! Their problems aren’t as severe as yours? At any rate, if one does not have at least three copies of their work (synchronically updated, of course), it seems rather silly to be crying over it, especially in this day and age of technological advancement. A quick phone call could have cleared the matter up: “Honey! You know that file on my hard drive that says ‘novel’? Can you send it to me?” Looks like there is only one person to blame, here.

I applaud your sincere and technically (i.e., logically) correct conclusion that “things are as bad as they seem and it can still get a lot worse.” Indeed! I am reminded of the Monty Python scene in The Meaning of Life when the Doctor calms his patient, who has just had his leg taken off by a tiger, by reassuring him that he’ll be “right at rain” in a couple of days: “Is there anything else I can reassure you of?” If only the solace of a simple-minded cliché were all it took!

The Unidentified M

Nick said...

What about this reading:

'Things are never as bad as they seem; they could always be worse'

means

'Where x is how bad things seem, and y is how bad they in fact are, x is never = to y. Moreover, it is epistemically possible that, necessarily, y > x.'


More prosaically: things are never exactly as bad as they seem, and for all I know it could be that they are always in fact worse than they seem.

Pseudonymous Grad Student said...

M -- The cliche's are painful, aren't they? The closet I've come to a cliche that actually helps is "Better luck next year--MAYBE."

Nick -- Damn. That's even more pessemistic than I was. . . .