Monday, September 27, 2010
They are husband and wife. She is Chaz Ebert. He is Roger Ebert. He is, as I’m sure you know, a well-known film critic.
How do I know that Chaz loves Roger? That they are husband and wife is indicative, but not definitive. Such relationships are complex, not to be taken for granted. Nor at face value.
I do not have any inside information. What I know about their relationship, I know from a long profile of Ebert that appeared in Esquire Magazine earlier this year. It was written by Chris Jones, who knows how to tell a story.
The story he told was not the Chaz and Roger story. It was the Roger story. Not all of it, but just a report on the current situation. And Ebert’s current situation is one that deeply involves his wife.
As you know, Ebert has had a bad battle with cancer these past few years. The spirit’s won. His mind is as sharp as ever. His pen as productive, perhaps more so now that he’s gone on the web with his blog. He is happy, and conducts his life with sure and optimistic purpose.
But his body has taken a beating. He lost his lower jaw and, in consequence, cannot eat or drink. The liquid diet has trimmed him down. Nor can he talk. He’s got a repertoire of hand gestures. He scribbles notes on a pad and on post-it notes. He can ‘speak’ through a device that synthesizes speech from his written text.
He’s become frail beyond his years and cannot climb stairs. Nor can he watch three or four films at one screening. He requires a live-in nurse. Chaz accompanies him everywhere.
Jones tells us all this, and in some detail, while also recounting the story of his his relationship to his beloved compeer, interlocutor, colleague, and friend, the late Gene Siskel. These accounts are interwoven with reporting on Ebert’s activities over two days or so: a film screening; a reception for the new owners of the Chicago Sun-Times, Ebert’s journalistic home; dinner out with a friend; and a walk in the park.
Some time during these two days Chaz decides that Roger must take a walk around a pond in nearby Lincoln Park, as they’ve done many times in the past few years:
At the start of their walk around the pond, Ebert worries about falling on a small gravel incline. Chaz lets go of his hand. "You can do it," she says, and she claps when Ebert makes it to the top on his own. Later, she climbs on top of a big circular stone. "I'm going to give my prayer to the universe," she says, and then she gives a sun salutation north, south, east, and west. Ebert raises his arms into the sky behind her.
It was reading that paragraph that the thought slash feeling hit me: Chaz loves Roger. It came to me just like that, unbidden, almost a little voice in my head: “she loves him.”
Read the paragraph again. Think about it. Here’s the first half:
At the start of their walk around the pond, Ebert worries about falling on a small gravel incline. Chaz lets go of his hand. "You can do it," she says, and she claps when Ebert makes it to the top on his own.
It is, I suppose, a bit like the encouragement a physical therapist might give. But the therapist is paid to provide a service, and coaching is part of the service. It’s also like a child encouraging a young learning to walk. Roger is not a young child and Chaz is not his mother. Yet, there’s a reason some spouses refer to one another with terms of parental endearment and address, Mama, Daddy, or perhaps Mother, Father.
It’s the second half of the paragraph that got me:
Later, she climbs on top of a big circular stone. "I'm going to give my prayer to the universe," she says, and then she gives a sun salutation north, south, east, and west. Ebert raises his arms into the sky behind her.
What an extraordinary gesture. At once intimate and open to the universe. And they do it together. They’re in it together. The Universe.
Yes, Chaz loves Roger.
And Roger loves Chaz.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Keith Baugh. Early New York Subway Graffiti 1973-1975. Buffalo Arts, 2009. Available for purchase here (Baugh's website).
Basically, history is a mystery. When you’re living the life, you don’t know where it’s going, who’s on the same trip, but on the other side of the world, and which close buddy’s gonna’ get off the train around the next turn. And when you’re looking back at the past, sorta’ knowing how at least some things turned out – well, the historical record isn’t what you’d want it to be. There’s big blank stretches.
That’s how it is with graffiti. Back in the day, who knew it’d make the global circuit & end up on sneakers and sk8boards and hi-fashion scarves and hiphop videos and Japanese anime and all that? Who knew? How could they? Writers were too busy getting up and out-running the police. Everyone else was worried about the vandals.
And now, we look back: Where’d it all come from? Yeah, Philly, New York. But what did it actually look like, day to day, week to week, month to month?
So, along comes this guy from England, Keith Baugh. He’s an artist and photographer. One day he’s looking through his stuff, some old photos from back in the day. Drags them out, shows them around to some folks.
Holy Crap! Keith. You know what you got?
No, tell me.
The missing link, that’s what.
The missing link?
The missing link.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
I was over at ARCADE reading through comments on a post about something called object-oriented ontology. Timothy Morton, the writer of that post, slipped a reference to Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying, into a comment. The title got my attention, so I zipped over to Amazon.com and read this in the produce description:
In spite of the laws, stigmas, and anxieties attached to it, the word “copying” permeates contemporary culture, shaping discourse on issues from hip hop to digitization to gender reassignment, and is particularly crucial in legal debates concerning intellectual property and copyright. Yet as a philosophical concept, copying remains poorly understood. Working comparatively across cultures and times, Marcus Boon undertakes an examination of what this word means—historically, culturally, philosophically—and why it fills us with fear and fascination. He argues that the dominant legal-political structures that define copying today obscure much broader processes of imitation that have constituted human communities for ages and continue to shape various subcultures today.
Wowie Zowie! And it seems Boon somehow bundles this all up with Buddhism.
That we are born copycats is hardly a new idea – remember ‘monkey see, monkey do’? – but I’ve been hearing a lot of this recently. For one thing, I hang out with copyright activists associated with QuestionCopyright.org, and they’re all about copying, copying as an essential facilitating and driving engine of culture. They’ve got Nina Paley on board doing advocacy videos for them, such as this one, “All Creative Work is Derivative.” And Paley, who is a fantastically inventive artist and film-maker, tends to go overboard in downplaying her originality while, at the same time, emphasizing how very much she’s borrowed from others going back, like, zillions of years (see this interview, for example).
The mythology of the individual creative genius is coming under sharpe critique and heavy assault. Here’s cognitive anthropologist Dan Sperber blogging about recent articles on creative pairs (e.g. Lennon and McCartney). And, of course, remix culture is all around us on the web, and is proclaiming itself to be so.
I suppose the concept of collective creativity first hit me back in 1987 in the wake of James Lincoln Collier’s biography of Duke Ellington, in which he emphasized the fact that Ellington frequently took ideas from his musicians and incorporated them into his compositions and arrangements. While this was hardly new information to the jazz community, it caused a minor uproar, as though it somehow diminished Ellington’s accomplishment. At the time I told myself that, if we knew as much about Shakespeare’s life and practices as we know about Ellington’s, we’d find that his plays are full of ideas from his actors in addition to all the material he’d taken from the literary tradition. That’s just how creativity works. Lots and lots of borrowing and stealing. Yes, you have to know how to put it all together, but you’ve got to have the source material.
But 1987, that’s a long time ago, practically the Dark Ages. Independently of indigenous intellectual changes in how we think about culture and creativity, other things have changed, too. And these other things are driving the current conversation, hard.
There is, of course, the internet, and all the swapping and sharing and circulating that takes place online. And not only the activity itself, but our awareness of it, down to the level of browser displays that show us all our Facebook friends. We see the connections before our very eyes. Any number of folks are busy visualizing them for us, throwing up pictures of the connectivity. And there’s been years of chatter about ‘six degrees of separation’ and networks.
Networks networks networks.
And, as a direct consequence of all this networking, we’ve got COPYRIGHT issues pushed in everyone’s face, week by week, day by day, and even hour by hour. I don’t need to run the litany of issues and annoyances, you’ve got your own list. The point is simply that they’re out there, and that there’s lots of push and shove on them. And because they’re legal issues, and the law has to justify itself, the intellectual and conceptual foundations of copyright are being dredged up, stirred around, and rethought.
While legal action is very much about POWER, the nature of that action requires that the power be rationalized. The rationalization may be thin and hackneyed, but it still must be there. Of course, Mr. Thin and Ms. Hackneyed are mostly on the side of monopoly restrictions. They aren’t going to think new thoughts. But the folks who’re fighting them, they will think new thoughts. They have to.
Judging from the publisher’s blurb for In Praise of Copying, the driving force of those legal issues has worked its way deep into the fabric of academic discussions. Buddhism? I’m sure Boon makes it make sense. I’m just struck at how far-reaching this discussion has become that Buddhism is being invoked.
Just how deeply are we going to rethink the Western cultural project?
On a more mundane note, I wonder if Harvard is publishing Boon’s book with the standard copyright restrictions or if they’ve decided to copyleft it. Whaddaya think?
Monday, September 20, 2010
Sunday, September 19, 2010
Graffiti writers do more than broadcast their name to all who pass by. They also send messages, short simple messages. Sometimes to one another, sometimes to the universe in general. I suspect that this message, a common sentiment, is addressed to the universe:
Here's one on a similar subject, though more positive in tone. It appears to be inscribed over an image of a duck, who looks rather like Donald (better not let Disney lawyers see this flic):
Here's a rather more complex little story. The throw-up is by Sol, who's gotten up quite a bit in the area. Enough so that he's ruffled many many feathers, writers who think he's disrespected them, though Sol disputes that. Whatever.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
When got up on Monday morning I had no inkling that this week would become Graffiti Week at New Savanna. I figured that I’d do a review of The Faith of Graffiti, post it, and that would be that. I’d move on to other topics for main posts. However, that’s not what happened. Graffiti Week is what happened, so let’s get back to it.
I want to think out loud about the process of reading graffiti, or seeing the letters. FWIW, these remarks are in counterpoint to a discussion elsewhere in the blogosphere where the topic reading literary texts, which is a nasty nasty topic, very messy.
Let’s start with a simple example. Look at the vertical beam on the left side of the following photo. There’s a name there: Themo. The “m” may be just a bit fancy, but there’s no trouble reading those strokes as an “m.” I will observe, in passing, that there are any number of ways to write one’s tag. The best writers develop a distinctive style, known as a hand-style.
Now look at this photo:
I didn’t read it as Themo when I first saw it. All I knew is that it said something, and that I liked it a lot. This, of course, is not a tag, it’s not done with a few quick strokes from the spray can (or with a marker of some sort). This is a bit more elaborate, over six feet high and perhaps 10 feet wide. And yet it is very free and fluid, as though it had been dashed off quickly.
Now, once someone told me to read it as “Themo,” I didn’t have any problem seeing it that way. The “T” is obvious, as is the “h.” Notice that the vertical stroke of the “T” is joined with the tall vertical of the “h” at the bottom. In the printing trade such a combination is known as a ligature. Moving to the right, the upper part of a lowercase “e” is partially obscured by the ‘knee’ of the “h.” It’s small, but it’s there. The “e” overlaps the leftmost vertical stroke of a capital “M.” Last, we have the “o,” which is partially overlapped by the “M.” Just to the right of Themo there’s something that looks like a large, but partially erased, numeral 5. That probably belongs to the Themo, but I’m not sure. The coloring appears right.
Thursday, September 16, 2010
That is to ask: Why has there been so much interest in cultural evolution in the last two decades or so? It seems to me that a lot of this thinking is just messing around, seeing if evolutionary ideas can somehow be attached to cultural phenomena in a coherent way. It seems more motivated by a desire to extend evolutionary thinking than by a desire to understand culture. And it’s not obvious to me that anyone has actually explained anything in this process, not so far.
In particular, has anyone used some theory of cultural evolution to explain some phenomenon of culture as well as, and ideally, better than competing non-evolutionary accounts? It’s not at all obvious to me that the answer to that question is “Yes.”
Note that I don’t exempt my own efforts from this, which is why, on the whole, I’ve devoted more time to examining and analyzing cultural phenomenon than I have conceptualizing cultural evolution. In particular, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about popular music in America, and the interaction of African-derived and European-derived styles (see, e.g. this longish paper) and, more recently, I’ve been looking at graffiti, which I’ll address later on.
One caveat: A lot depends on just what one means by cultural evolution. If one is just using ‘evolution’ as a substitute for ‘change,’ then the question has little meaning. It seems to me that much of memetics is like this, with the added innovation of attributing agency to the memes, rather than to people.
And then there’s gene-cultural coevolution (GCCE). Those folks may well have succeeded in coming up with useful explanations, e.g. lactose tolerance. But it’s not at all clear to me that GCCE can work with the kinds of phenomena that most interest me and that do constitute a great deal of cultural activity. As I’ve explained here, it’s not clear to me that GCCE has anything to say, for example, about something like the growth of graffiti in the last 40 years.
By ‘graffiti’ I don’t mean any writing on walls, but the specific practice that originated on the East Coast of the USA in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The practice seems to have been pretty much confined to those cities by the early 1980s. But it had gone world-wide by the start of the current millennium. How did that happen? And why?
I don’t see that GCCE has any tools to answer that question. The spread is too fast for any biological changes to have been involved. Whatever’s going on has been going on purely within the cultural sphere. There are obvious things to point to concerning how it happened: 1) Press coverage of early graffiti made the activity more visible. 2) When graffiti became associated with hip-hop, it followed hip-hop in its spread through world pop culture. 3) Photography, books, and films (Style Wars, Wild Style) spread the word. 4) The emergence of the world-wide-web created a new means by which photos of graffiti could made instantly available around the world.
But none of that explains why the practice spread. What made graffiti so attractive to so many people in so many different places around the world? And why has it been, on the whole, so conservative, so that the themes and motifs that originated in the East Coast of the USA in the late 1970s and early 1980s are showing up in Japan in then 2000s? On one level that question answers itself. If the designs changed rapidly, so that putting any old design up on the walls counted as graffiti, then the activity would loose its identity, its genealogical connection with those first writers in New York City and Philadelphia. It would just be painting on walls, illegally. Big deal.
The genealogical connection IS important. Why? Note that, while stylistic conservatism maintains that identity, we also have to allow for the identity of individual writers within the tradtion. The tradition has to have enough internal variety to allow for that.
There are ways of talking about those questions, and you’ll find some of them in the literature, but the question I’m asking is this: Can a strong theory of cultural evolution do a better job of accounting for this spread than any other theory? If so, what would that theory look like?
Let me offer you a minor graffiti mystery, a who-done-it. Consider the piece in Figure 1:
Notice first of all, the overall style, that the letters are 3D. This is quite common. Next, there are designs on the faces of the letters, designs that run up to the edges of the letter forms and even seem to stretch through and across them. This too is common. Notice how the third-dimension is added along the bottom edges of the letter faces, with lines running perpendicular to the plane of the letter face. It’s as though the name-form had been cut from a piece of metal, and the faces then painted. This is another common motif in graffiti practice. Finally, notice the arrows pointing here and there. Common, very common. And rather old, old school.
Now look at Figure 2. While the overall name-form is different, as are the colors, this piece exhibits all the stylistic features I’ve pointed out for Figure 1: 1) 3D form, 2) face designs, 3) perpendiculars on the depth dimension, and 4) arrows.
These two pieces share one other motif, and thereby hangs the mystery. Look at the bottom half of the leftmost letter in Figure 2. See the heart shape? That’s what interests me. You can see a similar shape to the right of center in Figure 1. That heart shape is not nearly so common as the other stylistic features I’ve pointed out.
So, the pieces in Figure 1 and Figure 2 share many characteristics. Why? Perhaps the same person did both pieces, or perhaps the writer of one piece was imitating the style of the other piece. Perhaps they’re imitating a common model. Except for the heart motif, however, all the shared characteristics are so common that I see no need to resort to any of those hypotheses to account for those characteristics. Lots of writers display those characteristics in their styles. As these two pieces are relatively new, and those features are relatively old – all of them existed by the early 1980s, if not before – the parsimonious assumption is that the writers of those pieces simply drew on the pool of motifs common to graffiti culture.
But there is that heart motif and, as I’ve said, that’s not so common. In fact, it seems rather rare. How do we explain that? One writer, two pieces? One writer imitating another? Both imitating a common model? Or independent invention? The heart shape is common enough, after all, that we cannot rule-out independent invention.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
I continue to think about the new edition of The Faith of Graffiti. FOG2 really is quite a remarkable book. One could even make a case that it has changed the world in a way that’s difficult to describe.
I’d known about the book for awhile, but had never seen the original edition. It’s out of print, not in my local library, and I didn’t want to pay a collector’s price just to see the photos and read the essay. Besides, the photos have been newly avaible since 2007, when Naar reissued them in a collection, The Birth of Graffiti (Naar talks about the book), which also contained 100 photos from that shoot that hadn’t made it into FOG1. Thus, the photos in FOG2 didn’t surprise me, though I was glad to look at them in a larger format.
But Mailer’s essay WAS a surprise. I’ve read a bit of Mailer, some of it very fine indeed, but I feared he might have coasted through this one. Nothing I’d read about it suggested otherwise. But he didn’t coast. Not a bit.
His essay is cultural criticism at its BEST. While the range of reference is not astonishing in itself, not from a man of Mailer’s intelligence and curiosity, the way he deployed it in this essay IS astonishing. Here’s his third paragraph:
The first is a Jewish joke. Perhaps it is the Jewish joke. Two grandmothers meet. One is pushing a baby carriage. “Oh,” says the other, “what a beautiful grandchild you have.” “That’s nothing,” says the first, reaching for her pocketbook. “Wait’ll I show you her picture.”
What has Mailer done here? In the first paragraph he introduces himself as A-I, Aesthetic Investigator. In the second paragraph he gives us CAY 161, TAKI 183, Junior 161, half the Italian Renaissance (will, not half, but you get the idea), tosses in Rothko and Ellsworth Kelley, and ends with the Church and God. And now a Jewish joke. A Jewish joke.
So he’s told us he’s Jewish, sorta. And he’s moved from the sublime – though the reader may well have been wondering whether or not these photos of vandalism merit such rhetoric – to the quotidian. And what’s that joke about? It’s about pictures, in a picture book no less. And what’s the joke about pictures do? It asks us to compare the picture to the original, that’s what. How very old, how very Platonic. Also, remember that this book came out in the Spring of ’74, less than a decade after those pesky deconstructive postmodernist French landed in Baltimore. In THAT climate, Mailer, who’s gonna write about pictures in a picture book, tells us a joke in which a Jewish grandma elevates the picture over the original.
What crazy chutzpah he’s got, this Norman.
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
These days if you do much reading about cultural evolution and evolutionary psychology you’re likely to read attempts to explain art as a way of signaling something. In one version it’s the genetic fitness of the artist. The more elaborate the art, the fitter the artist and, so goes the theory, the more likely the artist is to bed all the hot babes. In another version the art signals allegiance to a group, with different groups favoring different motifs and styles.
I’m skeptical about such theories. Group signaling doesn’t demand much more than, for example, that one group wear red shirts and another wear blue shirts. Yes, different groups will favor different styles, but there’s more to those styles than simply telling the differences between the Reds and the Blues. Similarly, it seems to me that, as a fitness signal, art is overkill. Art works exhibit high dimensionality — I’m thinking abstractly here, where the dimensions are about the content of the work, not the surface or volume where the work is executed — and so differ along 10s and 100s of dimensions. But fitness is generally conceptualized as having low dimensionality, like one. What’s the artist doing with all those extra dimensions?
Modern graffiti, however, does exhibit simple signaling dynamics. As far as we know, the practice started in Philadelphia and then New York City as a way for boys to signal their presence. They’d mark their names on walls, not their legal names, but their graffiti names, thus signifying their existence. In fact, the story goes that a Philly writer named Cornbread wanted to get the attention of a girl — score one for evolutionary psychology. The more a writer “got up” the more widely he would be known.
Such straightforward competition is still very much a part of the graffiti world. Look at this photo, which I took on 21 November 2006:
Notice how the tagging goes up the wall. That simple ladder has been there ever since I’ve been photographing the wall. For all I know, some graffiti writers built it just so they could go up the wall with their tags as the tree branches on the tree are too small to support much weight.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
You should click through to Flickr to see a larger version. This is in the Bergen Arches, a man-made channel blasted out of bedrock in Jersey City. There's a railroad track in the foreground, the only remaining track of four. There's a city sixty or seventy feet above us. The names: RAELS on the left, NISE on the right.
Friday, September 10, 2010
Babies, sunsets and sunrises, and reflections—all sure-fire photographic subjects capable of drawing interest even to otherwise unremarkable shots. Which is to say, they are dangerous and delicate.
Reflections, why are they interesting? There is, I suppose, the easy symmetry. Symmetry attracts our attention, perhaps for evolutionary reasons. Faces and bodies are symmetrical when see from the appropriate angle. But, while attractive, symmetry is also boring, because static and obvious.
Then there's the reality game. One in the pair is real, and one is but a reflection. If you're in the real presence, you can run your fingers over one and feel its contours, but the other has no contours, only a surface. And not even that if the reflecting medium is water.
Reflections can be elusive. Take this image (below). I know what's being reflected, and yet I had to think about the image, carefully, for a minute or so, before I could parse the central reflection.
What gave me pause were those bright verticals to the right of center. What could they be?
Thursday, September 9, 2010
Over at the Psychology Today blog complex, Joseph Carroll is taking Norman Holland to task on remarks that Holland made concerning the relationship between the reader of a literary text and the text itself. Though I disagree with Carroll on many matters, I agree with him on this one particular issue. Beyond that, I think his critique of Holland can also be applied to Susan Blackmore’s equivocations on memes. Here’s what Carroll says about Holland:
This whole way of thinking is a form of scholastic sophistry, useless and sterile. It produces verbal arguments that consist only in fabricated and unnecessary confusions, confusions like that which you produce as your conclusion in the passage you cited from your book: “the reader constructs everything” (p. 176). This conclusion seems plausible because it slyly blends two separate meanings of the word “constructs.” One meaning is that our brains assemble percepts into mental images. That meaning is correct. The other meaning is that our brains assemble percepts that are not radically constrained by the signals produced in the book. That meaning is incorrect. Once you have this kind of ambiguity at work for you, you can shuffle back and forth between the two meanings, sometimes suggesting the quite radical notion that books don’t “impose” any constraints—any meanings—on readers; and sometimes retreating into the safety of the correct meaning: that our brains assemble percepts.
Blackmore equivocates in a similar fashion on the question of whether or not memes are active agents. Here’s a snippet from a TED talk she gave last year:
The way to think about memes, though, is to think, why do they spread? They’re selfish information, they get copied if they can. But some of them will be copied because they’re good, or true, or useful, or beautiful. Some of them will be copied even though they’re not. Some, it’s quite hard to tell why.
Here she talks of memes as though they are agents of some kind, they’re selfish and they try to get copied. A bit later she says:
So think of it this way. Imagine a world full of brains and far more memes than can possibly find homes. The memes are trying to get copied, trying, in inverted commas, i.e., that’s the shorthand for, if they can get copied they will. They’re using you and me as their propagating copying machinery, and we are the meme machines.
Here memes are using us as machines for propagating themselves. And then we have this passage where she talks about a war between memes and genes:
So you get an arms race between the genes which are trying to get the humans to have small economical brains and not waste their time copying all this stuff, and the memes themselves, like the sounds that people made and copied – in other words, what turned out to be language – competing to get the brains to get bigger and bigger. So the big brain on this theory of driven by the memes.
The term "meme," as we know, was coined by Richard Dawkins, who is also responsible for anthropomorphizing genes as selfish agents in biological evolution. Dawkins knows perfectly well that genes aren’t agents, and is quite capable of explicating that selfishness in terms that eliminate the anthropomorphism, which is but a useful shorthand, albeit a shorthand that has caused a great deal of mischief.
This particular piece of graffiti has remained untouched since I first photographed it in late October of 2006. It's on one of the stanchions supporting the 12th Street viaduct taking I-78 into the Holland Tunnel in downtown Jersey City.
Here's the character at the left end, by Loser:
I do not know what the numeral "3" is doing here. The blue lines look like someone went over the piece, a sign of disrespect. In this area that's often the beginning of the end. Others will go over the piece as well and, in time, weeks or months, the piece will be so badly degraded that it will become completely replaced. That hasn't happened to this work in the four years or so I've been observing it.
This photo is from early August of 2007:
This is from December 2007, notice the lounge chair at the lower left and the 14th street viaduct at the upper right:
Here's a shot from December 2009:
Notice the red marking at the right, above center. That was there a year before, but you can't see it in the previous photo as the graffiti itself is too small in the photo. That's the only marking that's happened since the blue lines.
Here's my most recent photo, from July 2010. Notice the yellow throw-up or throwie at the left. That's new, but it doesn't go over the older graffiti, so it's legit. There's also a throwie on a concrete slab into front of the stanchion -- left of center, black outline in white.
ADDENDUM: This photo should give you some sense of the scale of this graffiti:
The man is a bit over 6 feet tall. Notice the paintball marks at the upper left.
ADDENDUM 2: After Irene:
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
Frank Donoghue had an interesting article on the long-term future of the humanities in The Chronicle Review for 5 Sept. Here’s the windup:
The shifting social mission of the university will also contribute to the shrinkage of the humanities as we move forward. The colleges of 1910 served a tiny population—only the children of the elite. College was, in most cases, either free or relatively inexpensive, but it served no purpose in the lives of the vast majority of everyday workers. Now, a college credential of some kind is all but mandatory for any job that pays a living wage. Roughly 18 million students are enrolled, with those numbers projected to continue going up. At first glance, that might seem to bode well for the humanities, but in fact, the opposite is true. The credentials that the influx of students seek, and the colleges that grant them, would have been unforeseeable in 1910.
Thus, the humanities were fine and dandy back then. But they’re largely irrelevant to the largely vocational goals of higher education today. That would seem to be the death knell for the humanities. And the fastest growing sectors of the higher ed biz, for-profits and community colleges, have little interest in the humanities.
With all that in mind, here’s Donoghue’s pitch:
So, will the humanities survive the 21st century? My guess may surprise you, in light of the trends I've just rehearsed: Yes.
Intelligent popular novels continue to be written; the nonfiction of humanists who defy disciplinary affiliation (Thomas Friedman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Garry Wills, among others) will still make best-seller lists; and brilliant independent films (like Slumdog Millionaire) will occasionally capture large popular audiences.
The survival of the humanities in academe, however, is a different story. The humanities will have a home somewhere in 2110, but it won't be in universities. We need at least to entertain the possibility that the humanities don't need academic institutions to survive, but actually do quite well on their own.
Some people may argue that, even if the humanities flourish outside academe, some group will have to train the new generation of public humanists how to read and write. Perhaps, but I see no compelling reason that those trainers must be college professors.
I think it’s a rather good pitch. That is to say, it’s worth thinking about, seriously. I’m reasonably convinced that the whole educational landscape is changing (see, for example, this post on the citizen researcher). That in itself isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it’s not necessarily bad. It’s to be determined.
Take one of my core interests, literary studies. And take my favorite passage from Kenneth Burke (from "Literature as Equipment for Living" in The Philosophy of Literary Form):
. . . surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one's thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one "imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself." One seeks to "direct the larger movements and operations" in one's campaign of living. One "maneuvers," and the maneuvering is an "art."
If that’s why literature is generally important, it’s not at all obvious to me why that activity has to take place in colleges and universities. It can take place anywhere, in reading groups and in the blogosphere, and one doesn’t have to have a Ph. D. to lead others through such discussions, if leading is necessary. The discussion is what matters, and not just in one’s teens and early twenties, but throughout one’s life.
Seeing that the discussion takes place, and that it is free and open, that's what we have to worry about.