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Tag: academia (page 2 of 4)

William Ian Miller on Academic Aristocracy

(Or why graduate school may be counterproductive in preparing one for not entering the academy.)

The story is an old one: the seller and his quest for money was believed to dissolve values, status, and dignity into a soup of tawdry slop, one spoonful as bad as the next. The trader disrupted certain useful illusions; he created and fed cravings. He offered everything for a price; he was a pimp, a go-between, a purveyor; money went a-whoring or made everything and everyone a whore; nothing meant filthy lucre and holy dollars anything because everything was for sale. Selling for a price polluted the thing bought and sold, the person buying and the person selling.

This is an irony that should give some pause about the company one keeps: the antimarket, antitrader, anticommercial, antibourgeois spirit of the left academic makes him or her the heir of the old aristocratic distaste for working in trade, whether that view is embodied in the person of an Achaean warrior, a sixteenth-century English duke, or a nineteenth-century impoverished habitue of St. Moritz looking for a rich American heiress to fund his uselessness. The people? Hoi polloi? They higgle and haggle, or in more successful guise they were the fathers of those rich American heiresses, men who hawked their daughters to old European blue bloods at fancy watering holes to gain grandchildren who would soon learn to be ashamed of them for having been in trade.

It should hardly need to be pointed out that money is as money does. The antimarket people want money, too, but they want it to know its place and to be devoted to purposes deemed dignifying, or paid out indirectly via various subsidies, just as aristocrats wanted it via inheritance or by marrying rich spouses and felt it should be devoted to the glorifying, because wasteful, purposes of sumptuous display. If through its history money has been demeaned as barren metal or filthy shit – it is never quite clear whether sterility or fecundity is what makes it revolting – at least as excrement it can fertilize schools and the arts.

That said…

But the discourse of hard-nosed economists, the faux toughness of the marketeers, of those economists who wish to measure commitment and caring by a “willingness-to-pay-in-dollars” standard, is no less parasitical on dignity talk than the apples-and-oranges position is parasitical on fairly healthy amounts of filthy lucre. The everything-is-about-self-interest crowd, the market priests, the willingness-to-pay guys, know that their game is played for pretty safe stakes, not just because they make a living by flattering and being serviceable to the rich and powerful, but for the very reason that no one will kill them for their tastelessness and bad manners, for letting money speak with a megaphone in our ears, for telling us that we are motivated by nothing more than a painfully risible view of human behavior as driven solely by self-interest.

(From Miller’s Eye for an Eye.)

Keith Thomas on Research and Notetaking

Keith Thomas wrote, among other things, Religion and the Decline of Magic, which, like all his books, is a monstrous, almost Robert Burton-ish, tome of obscure facts carefully arranged. I found his reflections on his working methods to be touching and, I think, humble:

When I go to libraries or archives, I make notes in a continuous form on sheets of paper, entering the page number and abbreviated title of the source opposite each excerpted passage. When I get home, I copy the bibliographical details of the works I have consulted into an alphabeticised index book, so that I can cite them in my footnotes. I then cut up each sheet with a pair of scissors. The resulting fragments are of varying size, depending on the length of the passage transcribed. These sliced-up pieces of paper pile up on the floor. Periodically, I file them away in old envelopes, devoting a separate envelope to each topic. Along with them go newspaper cuttings, lists of relevant books and articles yet to be read, and notes on anything else which might be helpful when it comes to thinking about the topic more analytically. If the notes on a particular topic are especially voluminous, I put them in a box file or a cardboard container or a drawer in a desk. I also keep an index of the topics on which I have an envelope or a file. The envelopes run into thousands.

The truth is that I have become something of a dinosaur. Nowadays, researchers don’t need to read early printed books laboriously from cover to cover. They have only to type a chosen word into the appropriate database to discover all the references to the topic they are pursuing. I try to console myself with the reflection that they will be less sensitive to the context of what they find and that they will certainly not make the unexpected discoveries which come from serendipity. But the sad truth is that much of what it has taken me a lifetime to build up by painful accumulation can now be achieved by a moderately diligent student in the course of a morning. Moreover, today’s historians don’t make notes on pieces of paper. They have computer programs for filing and indexing. Even as I write, an email message informs me that ‘wiki software can be used to develop a personal research knowledge base.’ My methods are in no way an advance on those of Burckhardt and now appear impossibly archaic. But it is far too late to think of transferring this accumulation onto some electronic database. When I look at my cellar, stuffed with cardboard boxes and dog-eared folders, and littered with loose slips which have broken free from overstuffed envelopes, I envy my colleagues who travel light, with their laptops and digital cameras. But, as Gibbon said, where error is irreparable, repentance is useless.

Yet as I pick my way through my accumulation of handwritten material, I don’t feel depressed. The thousands of used envelopes themselves give me a good deal of nostalgic pleasure; they remind me of old friends, of institutions with which I have been associated and of the secondhand booksellers who have sent me catalogues over the years. Admittedly, they also remind me of many false starts: topics I began on, tired of or discovered were being written up by somebody else. But that is a challenge to reorder my materials as the world moves on and my interests change. In his essay ‘On Intellectual Craftsmanship’, appended to his The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills reassuringly remarks that ‘the way in which these categories change, some being dropped and others being added, is an index of your intellectual progress … As you rearrange a filing system, you often find that you are, as it were, loosening your imagination.’

Keith Thomas

The Structure of University Education

We’ve gotta do it right

Within this system

Gonna take over

But within this system

Chicago, “It Better End Soon,” as quoted by Lester Bangs

It seems I’m late to the party over The Life of the Mind, discussing the problems of maintaining an intellectual life while pursuing an academic career in the humanities. The usual reactions seem to be either vehement, righteous agreement or scoffing at the author’s naivete that anyone could think that academia is anything other than a risky grind.



The Life of the Mind

Aside from the tremendous sympathy I have for those who are in unfortunate spots, this part of the discussion is largely redundant, as well as irrelevant. My two cents is that regardless of efforts of reform from within the universities, there are a couple of key factors that will cancel out their best efforts.

The democratization and class-flattening of university access over the last 50 or 60 years has produced two structural phenomena for academically-focused humanities departments that are not economically sustainable:

  1. The need to attract and retain a far larger number of low-paid graduate students and/or adjunct faculty than will ever attain a job in which they will have time to pursue “the life of the mind,” the ostensible goal.
  2. The need to attract a sufficient number of undergraduates who will overpay for large lecture courses so as to subsidize the rest of the faculty, seminars, and resources of the department, especially its graduate program.

The first is what I hear about constantly, but the second seems like the one that will be the ultimate forcing function. The low-paid adjunct/TA model can only go so far in reducing expenses in departments that aren’t economically self-sustaining, because the whole model is dependent on the second factor: as high a mean student-teacher ratio as possible across classes. (The median across classes is quite low, of course, which is why universities advertise that figure.) Even if graduate enrollment remained identical, reductions in lecture courses would be problematic, as David Leonhardt explains:

Because large lecture classes are cheaper for a college than seminars, freshmen are cheaper than upperclassmen. So a college that allows many of its underclassmen to drop out may be helping its bottom line.

So lecture enrollment and grad student enrollment need to be high, while the number of seminars and professors needs to be low. This is a squeeze. Kevin Carey’s excellent article about online education has this key point buried in it:

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

And with the rise of tuition and the flattening of wages over the last 30 years, this money source is inevitably drying up. The budding rise of online education will only speed the drought. Now, Carey is talking about college as practical job training. Those departments will have a problem but there will still be room for high-end theoretical and practical training in the sciences and social sciences, funded by grant money from DARPA and others. The humanities, by which I mean those fields which do not provide specific practical training other than for academia, will suffer far worse, only having the cushion of composition classes and the like to soften the drop in enrollment. In effect, it will be the final transition of college education from liberal education for the elites to job training for the middle classes.

Ultimately, I think it’s this factors more than anything that have led indirectly to the perversely self-defeating character of a lot of academic work in the humanities. The undermining of the classical liberal education paradigm has caused havoc to those who are attempting to work within it, even as some of them indicted its history. The recent archetypal example is Michael Berube, future head of the MLA, attacking his own discipline, which resulted in foolish rebuttals that only reinforced Berube’s claims (something Berube surely expected; I like him, he’s a smart guy, and he knows the score). For all his despair over the ineffectuality of cultural studies, but it’s telling that he cites its chief achievement as its analysis of its own socio-economic condition:

I’m not saying that it has had no impact. Cultural critics like Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams have written indispensable accounts of academic labor in America, and each has been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural-studies tradition, the branch that analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor.

If the best defense Berube can give is its rear-guard action against its very own home–i.e., “We’re being exploited!”–then it is going to be difficult to make a case for its continued presence anywhere in a university. You can see this squeeze in much of the handwringing going on elsewhere. Steven Shaviro may have struck a blow for open access by refusing to let Continuum publish a piece of his under their draconian rights contracts, but it’s hardly the storming of the Winter Palace.

None of this is to pick on these people, only to point out that the “culture wars” are only a side effect of a longer-term economic process that is indeed mostly out of academics’ control. Like anyone who cares about these things, I have a bit of false nostalgia for the good old days that I never knew, but if cultural studies has taught me anything, it’s not to mourn the decline of an institution born in elitism and sustained by it.

Zukofsky on Joyce

But not those two. The recent hubbub about Paul Zukofsky’s rather stringent views of copyright and distaste for studying his people’s work must be awfully inconvenient for those unlucky enough to be studying him, because Zukofsky’s “almost purely economic” interest looks like a case of getting blood from a stone. (Though it’s peculiar that Paul clearly has a more than superficial acquaintance with and affection for his father’s work. Except “Washstand”. He hates “Washstand.”)

That said, Paul Z. has managed to get all his own old albums of him playing and conducting Cage, Babbitt, Schnabel, etc., up on Amazon for purchase and download (all better than “Einstein on the Beach,” where he played the titular role), while leaving much of his dad’s stuff out of print, so he’s not quite milking his father’s cow for all its worth. And as many have already pointed out, while the recent foofaraw was hardly surprising to some, Paul Z.’s notice immediately caused the upload and distribution of an “A” torrent by anti-copyright activists who I’m sure couldn’t possibly be bothered to read the thing, making Louis Zukofsky’s work suddenly far more accessible (and cheap) than that of countless better-known poets.

But what amused me was stumbling on “The Injustice Collector”, about Joyce heir Stephen James Joyce and his own notoriously strict control of his ancestor’s estate:

Once, the death of a major literary figure marked the moment when scholars could interpret his work with genuine freedom. After Proust died, for example, academics began excavating the connections between his homosexuality and his art. Yet when Stephen Joyce succeeded in muffling a whole field of study with a combination of litigation and bravado, others took notice. Paul Zukofsky, the son of the poet Louis Zukofsky, said of Stephen’s efforts, “What I’ve heard sounds very, very good. He is a staunch defender of rights.”

Rights or money, which is it?

Richard Rorty, 1931-2007

Here I was about to write on Dante, and I hear that Rorty has passed away. Rorty is such a paradoxical and multifaceted figure that his death gives me cause to ponder my own philosophical orientations and biases. Even more than other analytic “slipstream” figures (my appropriated, tongue-in-cheek term for those analytics who headed, intentionally or unintentionally, towards an epistemological and hermeneutic rapprochement with continental developments: late Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Goodman, Putnam, Davidson, McDowell, and Brandom, all of whom owe some kind of debt to the American pragmatists, particularly Peirce), Rorty let himself abandon the analytic style and rigor and embrace far more historicist positions. And I feel this pull myself. But complicating this is the seeming existence of three Rortys. In roughly chronological order:

  1. the analytic “linguistic turn” Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, etc.)
  2. the pragmatic deconstructionist Rorty (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, etc.)
  3. the liberal populist Rorty (Achieving Our Country, late essays, etc.)

Even worse, the earlier Rortys continued to coexist with the later ones, although the analytic Rorty disappears mostly from the picture post-Contingency. The reason for this vanishing is that Rorty wisely realized that the post-Sellarsian philosophy of language was neither useful nor supportive of the relativistic pragmatic liberalism that the other two Rortys wanted to promote. Between the first two Rortys is Rorty turning his back on the analytic tradition and collapsing the lessons of Sellars and Quine into a roughly deconstructionist stance that Rorty inherits from Derrida, as well as an explicit embrace of historicism. There is little talk of sensing, mind, or language as practice in his later work, though clearly Rorty maintained enough affinities with his analytic forefathers to acutely criticize post-Kripkean analytic metaphysics. I am in great sympathy when in that article, he observes, criticizing Kripke-worshiper Scott Soames:

To my mind, the story of 20th-century analytic philosophy (including the role of Kripke in that story) is best told by highlighting questions about whether truth is a matter of correspondence, about what is and is not ‘out there’ to be corresponded to, and about whether there is any sense in which thought makes ‘direct contact’ with reality. So I regret that Soames’s history shoves these issues into the background. But perhaps correspondence is just my hobbyhorse, as necessity is his.

Couple “language” with “thought” and “truth,” and this is indeed my view of modern analytic philosophy as well. But even as he says this, his later work makes it clear that Rorty had lost interest in this question in and of itself, and was far more concerned with its implications and utility in political and cultural frameworks. His leap to an embrace of continental traditions is not surprising in this light, and his status as a maverick seems to be mostly due to this leap alone. His actual positions fit squarely into a deconstructionist (or “post-structuralist,” if you will) mainstream, with a little American flavoring. With regard to his treatment of meaning and language, Rorty’s actual separation from Derrida lies less in his ideology and more in the comparative clarity of his writing, which did as much to offer analytics a bridge to deconstructionist thought as it did to antagonize them towards it.

Perhaps it was this clarity that caused the third Rorty to evolve, in which he popularized his style even further and, most notably, wrote a little book called Achieving Our Country, celebrating Emerson and Dewey as models for a pragmatic politics. No matter that much of what he advocates in this book is unsubstantiable by Rortys 1 and 2. It was clear that after having embraced a heterodox liberalism under the guise of “liberal ironism” in his second incarnation, he was ready to put that into practice and drop the theory to attempt a concrete politics in the tradition of Dewey. Yet while Habermas attempted to ground such a liberalism in a dense, coherent account of intersubjectivity, Rorty seemed to have lost interest in fighting with other philosophers, and wanted to speak to the people. The book was not popular, though it earned an amusing rebuke from George Will in Time, who must have seen it as some sort of threat, or as a convenient strawman for attacking academia. That last point is particularly ironic, as Rorty #3 did indeed drop (or at least obscure) all of the relativist baggage that David “Black Panthers and Blacklists” Horowitz thinks threatens our nation. Some good it did him. In the late essays published (by Penguin!) in Philosophy and Social Hope, he is attacking Marx and criticizing philosophical leftists like Derrida for embracing Marxism, in between celebrating Forster and (again) Dewey.

Ironically enough, I see something of a parallel development in Derrida, who begins as an unorthodox but traditional Husserlian phenomenologist, then develops an aggressive deconstructionism in contrast to preceding structuralist trends, and finally ends his life advocating for the EU and Enlightenment values and making nice with arch-enemy Habermas in the name of liberalism. But Derrida never quite abandoned his audiences the way that Rorty 1 and Rorty 2 did.

II.

There have been countless accounts of analytic vs. continental personalities, and I only offer this one on the
grounds that it’s purely anecdotal. (I use “continental” here as shorthand for the poststructuralist mainstream that holds sway in America: Derrida, De Man, Foucault, Kristeva, Lacan, Agamben. No need to correct me on this point; I know.) But my experience has been that on assuming a position, analytics are far more likely to take it as truth to be put into practice, while continentals tend to embrace a position as justificatory rhetoric. For instance, the analytic incompatibilist determinists I know, who believe in no free will and no moral responsibility, seriously apply such beliefs in their daily lives: they picture people as robots to be corrected when they malfunction, and they have no patience with even the idea of revenge. Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes. (Indeed, another modern history of analytic thought could be the effect that rigidity can have in inflating pedantic disputes into highly unintuitive beliefs.) On the other hand, the continentals I’ve known have been far more likely to stick with what is, in effect, a foundationalist standpoint, and use philosophical works, appropriately or otherwise, to justify them. I have seen many continentals discourse on the indefinite postponement and deferral of truth and meaning, only then to proclaim the moral evil of the Enlightenment, capitalism, the United States, Europe, etc. One could blame Heidegger for being especially bad at this, but my unjustified suspicion is that the indifference to rhetoric falls out of the modern continental approach itself, just as the analytic approach produces its dogmatists. For whatever reason, Rorty’s “irony” came to dominate his view to the point that such a serious embrace of analytic metaphysical positions became anathema to him. Yet because he was in America or because he was outside the continental scene or because he just was like that, he failed to feel the urgency to dive into the continental pool.

Many of the figures mentioned above, despite my complaints, were brilliant and did remarkable work in analytic or continental philosophy. I think Rorty will be remembered for pursuing a more aggressive synthesis than most more than for espousing a particular position. I don’t necessarily see this as a fault, because I think his intent ultimately was not to stake out a singular philosophical position, but it does complicate how to assess his stature. Maybe because I am something of a philosopher, I can’t think of him as being as important as Habermas, Davidson, or even Derrida, even though I have problems with all three of them. If Rorty had had another fifty years, perhaps he would have produced a big book that would have been a liberal, anti-communitarian version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue; more likely, though, he would have gotten involved in politics (as another of his spiritual compatriots, Charles Taylor, actually did). He would have made a good columnist for the New York Times, certainly a better one than the universally ridiculed Stanley Fish. (But there I go, shooting Fish in a barrel again….)

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