Humanities’ Horse-Latitudes: will the real culprit please stand up?

I was perusing the venerable publication The American Scholar today, just in the interest of keeping up with my own Phi Beta Kappa.  I won’t mention the fact that I should probably be getting this journal free, but this is PBK, where you have the honor of buying a seventy-dollar engraved tie clip.  If you can see where this is going, you probably know me too well.

Anyway, here’s the spotlighted article, by a certain William M. Chace.  Give it a read, it’s free online.  I’m always interested in things like this, not just because it’s my field, but because as liberal as I might get, there’s something in the cantankerous “ubi sunt!?” that will always appeal to me, for better or for worse.  Anyhow, I read through the piece with increasingly mixed feelings, finally and frustratedly seeing what the problem was.  At least, in an opinion I shall seek to disguise as humble.

Here’s the gist of Chace’s argument: we all know that the humanities have lost tremendous ground since mid-century, and largely it has been stampeded and squatted upon by the thugs of Business (alias the Dread Negozioid!).  So far, so good: regardless of your ideological stance here, the facts are the facts, and Chace lays them out clearly instead of just ranting, to his credit.  Okay.  Where to go from here?  Instead of defaulting to country-clubby elitism or a caustic jeremiad against the modern univiersity, Chace goes introspective: we ourselves, as English faculty, are to blame for the erosion of humanities education and prestige.

How so?  It takes a while for the truth to come out, but it’s basically this: we’ve embraced Critical Theory.  ooOOOooo.  It’s not said in so many words, but this is what I feel to be the Main Import.  In Chace’s words,

… it turns out that everything now is porous, hazy, and open to never-ending improvisation, cancellation, and rupture; the “clean slates” are endlessly forthcoming. Fads come and go; theories appear with immense fanfare only soon to be jettisoned as bankrupt and déclassé. The caravan, always moving on, travels light because of what it leaves behind.

Okay, we’ve heard this one before, and it’s got a kernel of truth to it; it’s not as though there haven’t been some circus performers on the critical theory tenure tracks.  As Henry James could tell you, in far more complicated sentences, importing European culture to our shores isn’t an easy task.

The solution — you might’ve seen it coming from paragraph 1. — is to consolidate, purify, and immure the discipline in clear boundaries, essentially a great-books-new-critical circumambience, which will no doubt attract a smaller but more dedicated crowd, giving English Lit a status somewhat like that of “the study of the classics.”  He doesn’t actually recommend a “purge,” but you can easily imagine that this world has little room for a Culler, a Spivak, or other such scholars.

This solution set a lot of little synthesis-bells going off in my head; isn’t this precisely the goal of many in the Republican Party (boot out Scozzafava in favor of Hoffman!  Make room for Beck and Palin!), and of a distinct minority in the Roman Catholic church (time to bring in hardline traditionalists and dial everything back to pre-Vatican II times!  Make all religious brothers and sisters go behind bars and you’ll get more vocations!)?  That’s not a judgment really, since it depends upon your view of those other things to make an analogy.  I’m just interested to see such a climate of retrenchment and ideological purification out there in the world today.

It makes me wonder if there isn’t something “out there,” in the general world, that is simply awry.  Is it really consolation enough to contract, to retreat, to calmly accept a marginal position?  Would this not lead to a necessary ossification, a stagnant lowland into which no fresh, challenging breeze can blow?  I don’t even want to touch the G.O.P. or the Catholic church, but just thinking about the humanities (esp. Literature): I submit that the hand-wringing and introspection is a distraction, specifically a displacement of the true problem, the proper object of our militancy.  What if the mass exodus into business programs is the result of an irresistible summons from the very fabric of our society?  What if people didn’t just “get stupid” and “abandon their culture” this century for no reason, but because economic reality constrained them?

This is where I lose most of you.  But I submit that those students’ obsession with financial stability isn’t a root cause of the problem; in other words, the paradigm shift placing money over fulfillment and philosophy didn’t just perversely arise out of some de novo increase in Greed.  It’s rather a symptom of the heady, unsustainable trajectory of late capitalism.  Does anyone really think that, ceteris paribus, people would still prefer business at the same rate if it paid the exact same as lit or philosophy?  I’d like to give our undergraduates just a little more credit.  Sure, some of them are devoid of the slightest interest in culture and truth; some should probably not be going to college at all.  But for the great mass, who just want to figure things out, their choices are clearly the result not of intrinsic shallowness, but of capitalism breathing down their necks.

It’s time to quit pretending here.  Time to quit taking potshots at straw men.  The time to agonize over our identity may come, but for now, we know who we are: the people who care, who look for more than the numbness of a moneyed bourgeois satiety.  Critical theorists or New Critics or anything in between, we are the humanities, and we’re being choked out.  The python of capital has us mostly dead, and the further we move into crisis economics, the more we will be squeezed.  Maybe it is time for introspection after all: instead of dithering around within the system and seeking little victories, why not try to imagine a university or a country outside it entirely?  We are almost beyond the point of imagining an alternative, but sooner or later, it has to happen.


Ted Kennedy: last words on health care

“What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.”

The Tone.

I had a sort of miniature revelation today.  Something that has been bothering me about religious discourse of late is how people often sound perfectly rational until they are called upon to defend a controversial or difficult belief of theirs, at which point they suddenly sound like blathering apparatchiks or overly-enthusiastic telemarketers.  

Let me give a simple, neutral example: I picked up a book on Buddhism recently which was written very broadly, aimed at a non-Buddhist audience.  It took pains to emphasize the universal nature of Buddhist practice and insisted that it was very much available to those of other faith traditions.  Okay, fine.  I flipped a few pages in, though, and got to the bit about reincarnation.  It acknowledged the doctrine as being a difficult one, but then proceeded to give some vaguely “scientific” sounding “proofs” along the lines of “well, we can’t prove it doesn’t happen.”  Disappointed, I returned the book to the shelf.  The “tone” of the book had shifted.  It was no longer an intellectually honest exploration of religious issues, but a polemic for a rather silly idea.

I’m well aware that Christianity, and pretty much any other meta-narrative, is full of bits that look just that ridiculous.  Fine.  What I wonder is why people keep trying to gloss over these things with a Giada di Laurentiis-sized rictus of optimism, when deep down they must realize they are not wholly convinced?  Instead of admitting genuine difficulty, they suddenly switch “tone” from an honest, self-consistent discourse to what I simply call The Tone — a teflon-coated, twee, excessively confident discourse that functions as a “sales pitch” for the least swallowable bits of your favorite doctrine.

I’m finding it everywhere: it’s on Facebook, it’s there in Buddhist defenses of reincarnation and Catholic defenses of the artificial contraception ban; it’s omnipresent in Marxist art and almost synonymous with Contemporary Christian Music; it gets preached from thousands of pulpits, it thrives in the bogs of theodicy; it shows through the voice of any Heidiggerian who gets challenged on Martin’s Nazi sympathies; its ugly ghost occasionally haunts even the best of the Christian writers; it made the ending of Perelandra boring; its distinctive strain pops up in the voices of Christians when they have to explain “happy shall he be, who taketh and dasheth thy little ones against a stone” and in the prose of Christopher Hitchens whenever he diverts his wit to attack religion.  It’s all around you, and you use it yourself.  I use it.

I used to hear people say that C.S. Lewis was a coward/heretic/something bad for writing that some of the Psalms “embarrassed” him and that he wished they simply weren’t there.  Now, I think he’s just a respectable, honest Christian for saying so.  That doesn’t mean that the Psalms are embarrassing, note.  It does mean, though, that C.S. Lewis was being genuine.  He looks, cannot understand, and says “I cannot understand.”  The practitioner of The Tone looks at you, tosses his blow-dried hair, and says through a grin “Why can’t you understand?  These verses are actually the most merciful of the whole Bible!  If you don’t see the beauty, you’re just blind, or evil.”  The Tone sees a place for humility and replaces it with immense braggadocio.  The Tone crops up whenever someone feels defensive and decides to take the offensive against reasonable questioners.

Here’s another bit of my thought process: The Tone cannot bear to be contradicted or questioned.  The abortion debate is a great place for this to happen like crazy.  I have been pro-life for as long as I can remember, and I still am, but I have many questions and doubts about both sides of the question, and have always had a tough time with absolute claims about when “life begins.”  When I have expressed any of these doubts in public, though, to my surprise, The Tone started gushing out of people.  “If you can’t understand this, then your conscience is darkened, and God have mercy on you.”  “You’re on the side of the baby-killers.”  “Science tells us that life begins at conception.  If you don’t understand that, you are unscientific and damned!”  Etc. etc.  Again, this wasn’t the response to my avowal of pro-abortion views.  Just to some honest questions.  

It makes me wonder if people aren’t truly insecure about some of their own beliefs that otherwise seem quite certain.  Who was it (Thomas Merton?) who said that people never rave and argue over what they know is true (that they are alive, that the sun rises in the East) but only about what they in fact doubt?  

Let me be clear about what this isn’t: this isn’t an attack on dogma or belief, and certainly not an attack on “everyone else.”  I know that I use The Tone when I feel insecure about things too.  You’ve used it, whoever you are.  I suppose what I would like to see, in my perfect little model world, is a willingness to just admit “yes, this is difficult, damn it!”  There is nothing heretical or heterodox or damning about that.  It certainly doesn’t mean you’ve given up your belief.  It’s just that if you fail to process something, and instead just begin to advocate it because you are “supposed to,” people will eventually hear right through that ersatz Tone to the tender, quivering mass of insecurity beneath it.  This can be the case even if you’re totally unaware (I’ve found horrid cases of The Tone in my younger writing, when I certainly didn’t think I had doubts).  If we don’t all think about why we advocate what we advocate, then we are slaves, not noble and reasonable followers.

I will have my query.

I once heard an anecdote of the de-christianization of society that went thus.  At the time of its religious founding, Harvard University’s seal depicted two open books and one closed – signifying the branches of human knowledge (Humanities and Sciences, I presume) and the concealed Divine knowledge.  At some point, a little-noted milestone in the inexorable march of secularity, the third book yawned open and, full of hubris, we palpated the gods.  The commentator (anyone have a better memory than I?) saw this as a negative, and I was inclined to agree with him at the time.

Now, in the face of some recent clusters of stimuli – an article in The New Republic asserting the incompatibility of science and revelation, Charles Darwin’s birthday, and some silly Facebook arguments on unrelated topics that went round and round in maddening circles – I want to reëvaluate that position.  

For just about everybody, reflective or not, the Universe is either a closed or an open question (true also in theoretical physics, where we cannot yet make the call as to how violent the galaxies’ redshift will become, whether the space we call home will collapse on itself or rip apart).  Either everything is subject to a scrutiny that will presumably reveal all, but must be revised in the face of any convincing evidence to the contrary (call this “scientific”) or it is to be filtered through an authoritative consciousness whose word we must trust above our senses (call this “revelatory” – I do not say “religious”).  

The folks at Harvard seemed to want it both ways with the closed-book seal, and I believe that some other “bridge” groups still want it both ways – take the Intelligent Design community, which accepts all the more certain scientific theories but, when it begins to get “weird” (complex evolutionary reasoning, exotic particles, quantum entanglement, the anthropic principle) immediately surrender to a Higher Intelligence.  The problem with this is not that they have a concept of the supernatural (and they do, deny it as they might in the courts of Kansas) but that they want to use it as a prop for a house of cards that is unlikely to be as delicate as they think it is.  Because science has a way of figuring things out that seemed impossible at first; this tendency opens people up to embarrassment when they simply attribute difficult questions to “God.”

The same goes, I’m afraid, for some a priori accounts of religions themselves.  Faced with the idea of a possible interpolation in the sacred text, or an uncomfortable pronouncement by a religious leader, they throw up their hands and end up with a whole host of angels swooping down to give Moses the knowledge of Hellenistic words coined thousands of years after his death, or whispering into the Pope’s ear that homosexuality is a disease (something geneticists might awkwardly disprove pretty soon too).  

I don’t mean this as an attack on traditional religion at all.  I consider myself to be part of that tradition, in fact, and always have, despite my morphing thoughts on the triangulation among fact, reason, and revelation.  Here’s my query: doesn’t this “god of the gaps” business, where a deus ex machina gets written into nature where (and only where) an evident contradiction has been spotted, actually shortchange God, religion, the church, and us?  Reason is humanity’s greatest gift, and to abdicate it – even abdicate it to the church – is surely a genuine self-abuse.  Certainly, the world is scary when all the books are open.  But this is the frightening freedom to which our faculty of reason entitles us, and I begin to suspect that not using it is to bury our talent under the ground.  

To answer the usual criticism, I also do not think that this is to make “man the measure of all things” or an act of hubris.  The real hubris would be to declare that reason can certainly solve every problem.  That is every bit as untestable an assertion as the wildest claim of divine intervention.  But to dismiss what is plain to the eyes with absurd arguments about the “apparent age of the universe” or what-have-you cannot really satisfy our innate inquisitiveness.  I would like to submit to your comments and questions this idea: that in subjecting everything to real, honest, and humble inquiry, we are most closely fulfilling what it means to be human, and therefore, to inhabit the imago dei.  Thoughts?

In search of a second opinion.

I am sorry to have been gone so long.  I was on a Roman Holiday (“n. a time of debauchery or sadistic enjoyment” – so okay, just literally, not figuratively) and it was quite amazingly wonderful.

But sadly, all really is better in Italy.  No sooner did I arrive in the breadbasket of Patriotism and Dr. Pepper but I got the news that my modest “studio” (read: regular apartment put in a procrustean bed to make room for the laundry facility) was about to be auctioned off to the hoi polloi.  Dutifully, I sent my panicked email requesting world enough and time, made my way to the management office, and was handed an innocuous lease form that bore a tiny, almost imperceptible number that just happened to be $90 more than the tiny number on the last form.


Not being the sort to take things lying down, I exited abruptly and announced my intention to “think things over.”  I did so, and formulated some demands that I thought would surely be amenable (sure, raise my rent by a hundred bucks, but at least give me internets).  The lady at the front desk gave me a look right out of the Pieta and said she had begged and plead with the mysterious Mandarin of the Jamestown Complex, but he was intractable.

I don’t know if she’s just playing good cop with me, but she seemed genuinely torn up over my plight.  So she gave me the Miraculous Mandarin’s number (his name is the cheerfully consonant-cluttered Russell Trippett) and told me to try my luck alone before the Great White Throne.

Here’s my question for you: do I masochistically accept the terms as offered, or do I use my brain, which tells me that property values are going down, not up, and look for something else (thereby exposing myself to the horrific inconvenience of moving the whole place in nothing but a tiny sedan)?  Limiting factor: I will probably only be living in Waco for one more year.

Any advice is much appreciated …

Obama / Warren

My preliminary thoughts on the choice of Rick Warren for the invocation at Obama’s inauguration are that he [Obama] has made a good choice.  That’s not to say that I am any special fan of Warren’s; I find the entire “megachurch” phenomenon to be a bit undesirable mostly for personal theological reasons (i.e., I don’t like a democratized church).  Nor do I find myself able to subscribe to his positions on homosexuality, but it’s important to remember that they will be the views of *any* evangelical, and are held by many, if not most, Americans over the age of, say, 35.

I am not any more thrilled than anyone else on the left about some of the cabinet picks or some of the conservative policies we’re likely to see from Obama.  But the fact is, we voted for a man who campaigned on the idea of bipartisanship.  Now, I don’t know what most progressives consider to be “bipartisanship,” but apparently some think it means “stacking the new administration with leftists.”  Again, I’m as eager as anyone for every neoconservative bungler in Washington to be booted into the welcoming arms of the Weekly Standard before we get involved in a nuclear conflagration with Iran, Russia, and whoever else feels like joining the “axis of evil.”  But as much as I fear the cowboy policies of the modern right, I value more the idea that dialogue and compromise will give our nation the ethical center it needs.  Yes, I agree with the leftists on many things, but one of my sharpest criticisms of the current administration is its inability to understand any subtlety or any opposing perspective.  

By choosing Warren, Obama has angered the gay rights movement, no question.  But then again, Proposition 8 and the debates showed that, unfortunately, this is not yet the time for equal rights.  That’s not a universal indult or anything, but there’s no sense in which Warren (easily the most popular evangelical alive) can single-handedly deprive gay couples of anything.  So, for reasons entirely unrelated to gay rights, I think that Obama’s choice puts an important new nexus on the map: an alliance of reasonable evangelicals and non-doctrinaire leftists, one which will (hopefully) help the Christian right to stop stigmatizing social justice as some kind of threat, and the left to relax its ardent support for, say, abortion on demand or the ardent prosecution of innocuous 10-commandments tablets.

Thoughts?  A wholly quixotic idea?

Maï ’68?

I’ve been away altogether too long, not because I’ve had nothing to say, but between clearing up funeral arrangements at home over Thanksgiving break and then scrambling to finish everything I had missed at school, time hasn’t been my most plentiful commodity.  My inability to find time for jogging is about to make me wax corpulent.

The question on my mind today was sparked by the student riots currently afoot in Greece.  I’m interested both because Greece is the most amazing place I have ever been, and because I have an intense fascination with the “Maï 1968” uprisings in Europe.  According to an article from the Chicago Tribune, 

There is a consensus among Greeks that they witnessed a true social uprising this month […] but there is another realization bubbling up in conversations: the young, those who went first into the streets, appear to have no idea how to make the most of their demands.  Hundreds turned out for peaceful and articulate demonstrations Saturday and Monday, but so far no leader has emerged.

As they say, youth is wasted on the young. Of course, not all of the demonstrations have been peaceful, and except in cases of blatant and continuing violence on the part of the state, we must condemn riots and property destruction.  But what are we to make of these “peaceful and articulate demonstrations?”  The spirit of revolution is extremely far from us, living as we do in a basically seamless system of votes and unobtrusive policies (although, of course, there are chinks in the armor, viz. 2000 election).  So to ask the question of its appropriateness is academic for us.  But it is hardly so for the Greeks, so we may as well ask it now.

Bernard-Henri Levy, the staunchest possible opponent of the “utopian” style of revolution (say, like that of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who wanted to turn the clock back to “year zero” and restructure society entirely), is still an admirer of 1968.  Not every aspect, of course — but he sees the uprisings as an anti-totalitarian move, the time when the Left finally gave up the insanity of Stalinism (1968 was, after all, also the year of the Prague Spring).  

Obviously, the uprisings were a complete failure, completely unable to upset the bourgeois status quo in the West, or to stem the tide of Soviet tanks in the East.  The Vietnam War plugged on, the Soviet Union would peter out slowly over the next twenty years, and certainly The Young did not reform society as they hoped.  

So, is the whole thing dead?  Did 1968 silence the revolutionary dream forever?  Is that dream always the same?

I would tentatively answer “no” to all those questions.  The issue in Greece may be different, but the circumstances are similar: a center-right government, unremarkable for repression, nevertheless makes explicit its foundation upon a barely-restrained ocean of violence; students, being young and being students, take umbrage and begin to take action.  This is qualitatively different from the riots in the banlieus of Paris a few years ago, where a cauldron of unrest simply overflowed into mass property destruction.  Again, there has been destruction in Greece, but also the protests mentioned above.  

So the defeat of 1968 was not necessarily forever.  I would also argue that the revolutionary dream is not always the same.  The much-reviled Hugo Chavez, for instance, makes use of revolutionary rhetoric but has honored democracy even when his personal governmental plans were rejected (and many of them were rejected rightly — if Chavez truly believes in Socialism for the 21st Century, he should be content to leave his movement with a successor).  This is absolutely different from another revolutionary state, Cuba, where the media is utterly repressed and governmental change is impossible.

Ultimately, this does boil down to governmental change.  Democracy ought to work by means of voting, absolutely.  But nowhere is it written that democracy is identical to voting.  There does come a time when governments must be overthrown.  Certainly we are nowhere near that point, and I doubt whether Greece is, either.  But I do believe that most of us, not finding ourselves too burdened or oppressed by the government, accept it even when it acts against our own, and against the nation’s, interests.  It is not aberrant or criminal for democracy to burst out of its usual self-imposed limits and force its elected leaders (who can and must be recalled as soon as they betray the public trust) to wake up and listen to the people.  All of our center-right, status-quo, middle class Western democracies tend to keep the peace and honor the vote, but they are also fond of showing the basis of their power: police sovereignty, the state of exception, state-sanctioned torture, secret prisons, harsh treatment of youth (as in Greece), and so on.  

“Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” wrote the Nazi Carl Schmitt.  This power — the declaration of emergency states, the placing of bodies into a perpetual status of arrest, the reduction of a human life (with all its attendant rights) to bare life, is a terrifying power.  Who holds it?  In our own country, the executive branch holds it, together with its department of justice, and congress has shown next to no interest in checking it (except for a few warriors like Chris Dodd, who’s increasing difficulties with the financial crisis prove that, as usual, it is money that will bring down those who could have been our best and brightest).  In other words, you and I do not hold this power.  In fact, were we unlucky enough to share a name or a skin color with a suspected terrorist, we could feel it ourselves.  

I am not suggesting revolution here.  Our president-elect has, thank God, promised to order a close to Guantanamo, one of our great national embarrassments.  But when our government — especially the executive, or the unelected Supreme Court — makes reckless decisions in the name of “security” or what-have-you, decisions in which we should by right have a say, I believe it is our duty to use the voice — one of the few weapons held in common by all, and fortunately mostly unchecked in the US — to let it be known that we do not want to cede the “state of exception” to a unitary executive.  This opposition to the hoarding of powers, I think, and the realization that liberty can be stolen piece by piece without anyone noticing, is the true spirit of the popular demonstration, the thing that we cannot afford to allow to lie dead with the other dreams of 1968.

Your thoughts?