Category Archives: Fascinating Blog

Closing the book on the “Crisis of the Humanities” means we finally have time to read more books

A great new article about college enrollment numbers strongly confirms a conclusion I’ve been coming to for a while now about the “crisis in the Humanities.”

1)  The Humanities are not in crisis;

2)  To the extent humanities enrollment is in decline, it is as a result of the Humanities’ key successes in opening supporting the ambitions of women and minorities to be accepted in roles where they previously were not;

3)  Any crisis of confidence within the humanities is entirely the result of self-inflicted wounds.

Continue reading Closing the book on the “Crisis of the Humanities” means we finally have time to read more books

The Revolution will not be humorous

bell hooksI can’t tell you how delighted I was to read this statement by bell hooks in a recent interview:

“We cannot have a meaningful revolution without humor. Every time we see the left or any group trying to move forward politically in a radical way, when they’re humorless, they fail. Humor is essential to the integrative balance that we need to deal with diversity and difference and the building of community.”

The value of humor is completely overlooked in both revolutionary pedagogy and critical theory – one suspects because revolutionaries and critical theorists don’t like to admit how funny they are. Another reason:  and revolutions are often pursued by the kind of people who like to think that if they just explain things hard enough everything will fall in line.  But humor is a pure demonstration of the fact that not all things in life are reducible to reason or amenable to politics – and that therefore revolution and theory have their limits.


Continue reading The Revolution will not be humorous

Is the study of Bullshit itself bullshit?

Bullshit may be the dominant form of expression in the early 21st century:  we’ve reached a point where it’s impossible to have any cultural literacy at all if bullshit isn’t your second language.

So I was one of the people who celebrated when Henry Frankfurt published “On Bullshit,” his philosophical study of the unique language characteristics of bullshit.  I’m not sure he really added anything to Orwell’s take on the subject, but, the more rigorous looks we have at bullshit, and why it’s a weed infesting our language and choking our culture, the better.

Except that a recent study out of the University of Waterloo (Canada) illustrates just how careful we have to be when interrogating this subject.  One of bullshit’s most dangerous characteristics is that it’s sticky – and if we get it on our hands we have a hard time not spreading it around.

Continue reading Is the study of Bullshit itself bullshit?

The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

What if the medium is the message is the zietgiest?

There may be no odder quirk of fate – or sign of the times – than the fact that both the Movement Conservatives on the right and the student activist movement on the left are demanding safe spaces in which they need not be confronted by opposing views.

This is not to conflate the two movements, or suggest they are fundamentally the same – but the trend of ideological polarization that demographers have been noting in America for decades (Blue States get bluer, Red States get redder, and people of identical incomes are increasingly clustered) is having an impact on the way debate is conceptualized in this country.

Given both increasing demographic segregation, and the increasing segmentation of the (social) media into targeted niches, should it really be a surprise that the nature of debate has gone from trying to win arguments to demanding freedom from the existence of opposing arguments?


Continue reading The Parallels of Polarized Discourse

Will the “real” Rebecca Solnit please confirm that she is not an enemy of Humanity?

Sometimes the more evidence there is, the more difficult it can be to evaluate someone as a thinker.  Especially across multiple forms of media.  I wonder sometimes if, much in the way sound travels through different forms of matter in different ways, ideas also sometimes travel differently across interviews and essays and speeches.

I have not only enjoyed but been thoroughly impressed by the interviews I have seen author and well-quoted-feminist Rebecca Solnit give.  I’ve found her thoughtful, incisive, and comprehensive.  I’ve enjoyed Solnit in sound-bite form too.  I mean, she coined the term “Manspalining,” which … until it became so thoroughly part of the lexicon as to die from exposure … elegantly served a useful purpose.

Based on such shining, I thought hers to be a star I ought to let guide me, and so I bought her latest book:  “Men Explain Things To Me.”  Here the struggle begins, because I find her essays to be tedious, pedantic, and sometimes so horrifically wrong as to make me question either her seriousness or her sanity. Continue reading Will the “real” Rebecca Solnit please confirm that she is not an enemy of Humanity?

What we don’t know about Demon Camp can haunt us

There’s no sight in nature more beautiful to me than the dance of epistemologies, but of late I’ve begun tuning out articles on “science vs. religion” and “atheism or faith” because the Death of God appears to have discharged more heat than light.  When the usual suspects make the usual points in the usual way to the usual crowd, a wise man is forgiven for playing “Flappy Birds” instead of taking notes.

I grant you that a subject like this dates back thousands of years and advances at a glacial pace, but it does advance.  The writing about it in much of the popular press does not.  It treats the clash of culture the way it treats celebrity outfits – an infinitely renewable source of the same old adjectives draping the flavor of the week.

I also have a problem with Flappy Bird.

So after a long scholarly winter I’m pleased to have some truly thought provoking works on how we navigate the search for divinity and our place in the world.

It’s hard to recommend Adam Gropnik’s New York piece “Bigger Than Phil” enough.  A subtle, nuanced, search not so much of the issues of theological epistemology (how do we know God does or doesn’t exist) but of the moment when our cultural switched from one default position (“of course there’s a God”) to another (“what kind of intellectual could possibly be a believer?”).  In that look at our history, of course, we discover a lot about our present that’s worth knowing, and Gropnik is an elegant cultural coroner.

“The problem is that godlessness as a felt condition is very different from atheism as an articulate movement,” he notes.  “(W)e are divided not so much between believers and non- as between what might be called Super-Naturalists, who believe that a material account of existence is inadequate to our numinous-seeming experience, and Self-Makers, who are prepared to let the human mind take credit even for the most shimmering bits of life.” … “Indeed, much of the argument against God works less well as argument and thesis than as atmosphere and tone. The sappers who silently undermined the foundations of the Church did more damage than the soldiers who stormed the walls.”

And then there’s this insightful section, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety: Continue reading What we don’t know about Demon Camp can haunt us

Love in the time of “Gameification”

There is a fascinating article in the current SF Weekly about the way App designers are trying to improve your romantic life.  Members of the Smart Phone Set are all so busy, you see, and romance tends to lose its fizzle, so they turn Apps that schedule them to do nice things for their significant others:  make romantic gestures, offer sacrifices, fill up your “love tank” – and offers points and rewards to make it easy and fun.

“It’s basically gamification of your relationships,” says Sonja Poole, a 43-year-old associate professor at the University of San Francisco (who uses the App).”

This could work, the article goes on, because:

“(F)rom a psychological perspective, human relationships “are inherently game-like,” saysProfessor Andrew Colman, a psychologist and game theory expert at University of Leicester in the U.K. According to a 2009 study that analyzes dating in terms of game theory, humans assess potential mates according to investments, risk-reward behaviors, and other factors that mirror the way we analyze a game. Game theory, for instance, explains why we love “the chase.” “A male’s willingness to court for a long time is a signal that he is likely to be a good male,” study author Robert Seymour writes.

Or a stalker.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that in the 21st century the way to a man’s heart is through his phone.  Got it?

Do you really?  And does it make your skin crawl?  Because it does mine. Continue reading Love in the time of “Gameification”

What if the humanities are in crisis for all the right reasons?

The “Crisis of the Humanities” is much like a soldier who, shooting his own foot, demands an accounting from the bullet factory.

Which isn’t to say there isn’t a real problem – only that, as I’ve written before, the academic study of the humanities has a real fetish for self-harm.  You can’t spend decades killing literature and history, only to scratch your head in the new millennia and wonder why no one is inspired by you.

Except that, maybe, the whole problem is exactly that people were inspired by the humanities. Could the decline in humanities enrollment in academia have occurred precisely because the message of the humanities was taken to heart?

According to a new study of men and women’s bachelor degrees from 1965 to 2005, virtually the entire drop in humanities enrollment during that time occurred because women switched from humanities majors to traditionally male dominated areas like business, medicine, and the law.

These are all subject, it should be noted, that at the beginning of the period in question – 1965 – it was very difficult for women to get into, and even harder to be taken seriously. Continue reading What if the humanities are in crisis for all the right reasons?

The Things I Thought of Myself

Most of the really important lessons in life have already been thought of and best expressed by other people.  History, after all, goes back a long time, and a lot of those people were very smart.

So when I was asked by a prompt in a writing workshop to “say what needed to be said,” my first response was to think that, in fact, I had nothing that needed to be said in a broad, sweeping, “inform the world” kind of way.  So far as wisdom goes, I am a secondary source.

But … but … the more I thought about it the more it occurred to me that there might be a few quirky lessons I had truly thought of, in the iron crucible of life, on my own.  Not to say they weren’t thought of by someone before, but not to the point of being cultural tropes.  So I wrote them down.  They’re neither so poingant as “Blessed are the poor” nor so well expressed as “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” but they’re mine, and I hope you find them helpful.

Here we go: Continue reading The Things I Thought of Myself

Freedom From Religion Foundation wants a less Jewish holocaust

This is a “Laugh and Cry” moment.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is threatening to block a Holocaust memorial in Columbus, OH … because it includes a star of David.

According to a letter sent by the Foundation’s co-presidents, Dan Barker and Annie Gaylor (PDF): “Since the Star of David is a religious symbol and a secular government is not supposed to be promoting religion, especially when there are other perfectly secular alternatives, we’re objecting to that religious symbol.”

So let me get this straight:  the Freedom From Religion Foundation wants a memorial to the Holocaust … an attempt to wipe out Jewish people and Culture … to not include any Jewish symbols.

A secular alternative is needed to represent the Jewish people … who were persecuted for their religion. Continue reading Freedom From Religion Foundation wants a less Jewish holocaust