Tag Archives: Humanities

Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)

Volatiar's BastardsThrough a strange set of circumstances involving Chicken John Rinaldi – and are there ever any other sorts of circumstances involving Chicken John? – I have tracked down the 1992 volume “Voltaire’s Bastards,” by John Saul, a book sadly both out of print and not available in ebook form.

It’s terrific reading so far:  intriguingly, Saul’s thesis about the rise of “Reason” and the technocrats feels both incredibly fresh and germane and completely out of touch with modern reality.  The internet would become a fact of life for elite America just five years after Voltaire’s Bastards was published, and 10 years after that it would be a nearly ubiquitous fact of life.  And we’re still 10 years past that, well into the world of Uber and Facebook.

This is a series of events which Saul’s thesis has everything to say about, but on which it is utterly silent owing to its year of publication.  Its silence on these critical issues is deeply frustrating:  to my mind Saul’s thesis is enhanced by the development of online technology, but the examples he actually uses are dated and almost quaint.  This matters in a way that it does not in a book like Walden or Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, because Voltaire’s Bastards is speaking to a very specific set of historical contingencies rather than to the timeless nature of the human self.

Continue reading Education in the technocratic age (notes from Voltaire’s Bastards)

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

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?

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

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?

What “Big Data” doesn’t understand about literature could fill a book that it would never read

Hey, remember how the internet was going to end racism?  How the digital revolution would close the gaps between the haves and have-nots?  Maybe eliminate money altogether?

Remember that?

It’s cute when little children assign their toys superpowers.  It’s nothing but trouble when grown-ups do it.

Today we’re told that digital technology will change everything about the study of literature:  quantifying it, taking out all the messy subjectivity, and reveal stunning new insights.

Promises promises.

The case is made, most recently, by Marc Egnal writing in the New York Times.

“Can the technologies of Big Data, which are transforming so many areas of life, change our understanding of American novels?” he asks.

Notice how no one who asks that question ever says “no.”  It’s a giveaway that we’re playing games rather than engaged in serious scholarship.  Serious scholars do not ask questions to which they are already messianically convinced of the answer, unless it involves ordering off a menu or tenure.

Sure enough:  “After conducting research with Google’s Ngram database, which tabulates the frequency of words used in more than five million books, I believe the answer is yes.” Continue reading What “Big Data” doesn’t understand about literature could fill a book that it would never read

How Clive James knocked me to the Canvas

“FOUR essays on Philip Larkin?”  I told Cruz, unbelieving.  “That seems excessive.”

“Yeah, but they’re pretty amazing,” Cruz said.

I was reading Clive James’ new “best of” collection of his work preceding “Cultural Amnesia.”   (It’s called “Cultural Cohesion”)  Cruz had gotten there first, sending me an email with a link saying “So this exists.”

But Larkin had only produced four major collections – did we need an essay for each one?  Reluctantly, I started in.

I had completed essay three by the time I stopped at a local book store and, dammit Clive, purchased “The Complete Poetry of Phillip Larkin.”

Down goes the cynic.

A point scored for conservative critics of academia

There’s a crisis in the humanities.  Have you heard?

There are many reasons for this – certainly our age is feckless and our college administrations more corporate than ever – but you can count me among those who say the “officer class” of the humanities themselves – the faculty, the literati, the public intellectuals, and artists – are most responsible for their decline.

At the worst, they are responsible for an elegant suicide pact (Philip Rieff’s phrase) that opened the gates to the barbarism and then tried to join the hordes.  At their best, they have (with the exception of a few outliers) failed to make a compelling case for the cause they supposedly champion.

An essay in The Weekly Standard makes this point clear by critiquing a recent Harvard study on the decline of the humanities at Harvard.

The whole thing is well worth a read, and the critique fundamentally sound:  “To restore the humanities, it is necessary to ensure that students acquire a common foundation in the history of the West and its literary, religious, philosophical, and artistic classics. These shaped our ideas and our institutions. Grappling with them refines our understanding of ourselves and our country.” – exactly what the humanities at the “top” universities still refuse to do.

But the killer observation comes near the end, so obviously true it’s a wonder it hasn’t been put on bumper stickers (emphasis added):


“It is also necessary to study other civilizations, but to do this seriously would require universities, instead of scuttling requirements, to institute substantial foreign language requirements. Nothing is so revealing of multiculturalism’s status as a political program rather than a research paradigm than the indifference of its proponents to language study.”

Continue reading A point scored for conservative critics of academia

There is no humor code! Why the Algorithmic Assumption is the opposite of scholarship

Well now this is annoying.

A while back I wrote about an article in Salon claiming that researchers had cracked “The Charisma Code.”  A simple “cognitive explanation,” reducible to a cocktail napkin formula of the kind so beloved by precocious undergrads, had been proposed to explain the entire phenomenon.

Now I read that new research is making a (from the headline) “Serious attempt to crack the humor code.”

The idea being that things are funny because they violate us benignly.  No, I’m not making that up.  And yes, one could wonder whether anything that’s benign could actually count as a violation, but …

… look …

I spent years in grad school researching the nature of humor under the tutelage of Victor Raskin, one of the leading thinkers in the field, and there’s nothing wrong with the theory that the subject of the article, “comedy scientist” Peter McGraw, is putting forward.  Although … “comedy scientist?”  Really?

(A more precise term might be “associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.”)

In fact the basic idea behind “benign violation” as the engine that powers comedy goes back at least as far as Santayana, who proposed that humor comes from the juxtaposition of two unrelated concepts in the same idea.  Which is to say … as with so much research breathlessly reported on by the media … this new research isn’t new.  It isn’t even really research, to the extent that it’s pretty derivative precisely because it hasn’t done its homework on what came before.

But again, it’s not wrong per see … it’s certainly a model that fits a lot of cases.  As per the article: Continue reading There is no humor code! Why the Algorithmic Assumption is the opposite of scholarship

The deconstruction of “race” as a discourse in Dr. Who … oh who are we kidding?

It is possible to do the academic study of popular culture well.  It just isn’t common.  My hypothesis is that all too often the academic study of popular culture is undertaken by scholars who really just want to write fan fiction.

In 2001 a whole bunch of academics so enjoyed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that they created an online journal (“Slayage”) dedicated to “Buffy Studies.”   It was every bit as poorly written and conceived as the name implies, and came across as the loving work of people with graduate degrees who wanted to say “Wasn’t that series SO COOL!” at the top of their vocabularies.

Here’s a paragraph from (at the time) Loyola library student Hilary Leon’s article “Why we love the Monsters:  How Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Wound Up Dating the Enemy” (PDF):

“Drawn inexorably by their slaying duties into the world of the creatures they fight, Buffy and Anita spend much of their time among those who are not human. In her roles as necromancer, police advisor, and executioner, Anita is surrounded by criminals, killers, and practitioners of the dark arts. She is also, inevitably, faced with non-humans who do not fit her original, rather simplistic definition of “monster.” Buffy faces a similar dilemma: her closest contact with undead activities in Sunnydale turns out to be himself a vampire, a fact she discovers only after their first passionate kiss. Neither woman intentionally seeks a lover among her enemies, but for each a variety of factors culminates in an unexpected and powerful attraction to the predators she is sworn to destroy.”

That’s not academic study – that’s a less interesting plot synopsis.  The conclusion, after 7 pages of this:  ”Rather than being forced to choose between the humans and the monsters, Buffy and Anita accept the complexity of their roles, and ultimately address both sets of responsibilities: to humankind, and to their own passions.”

It’s text that could come straight off the boxed set.  Continue reading The deconstruction of “race” as a discourse in Dr. Who … oh who are we kidding?