Saturday, June 19, 2010

Counter-Cultural Poetics: Ed Sanders and History

Salted cashews, and my personal relationship thereunto, probably provide the best analogy for my experience of reading Ed Sanders's poetry. I know there are more sophisticated culinary pleasures than a can of cashews, but I can spend the whole evening with the simple pleasures of cashews and not want anything else, except maybe a bottle of Fat Tire and an episode of Tremé (I thought Wendell Pierce had peaked when he played Bunk Moreland on The Wire, but I was wrong).

I know what keeps me coming back to cashews — the (un)holy combo of salt and fat. But what is it about Sanders? Some of the charm is certainly the aura of the guy: he's the original bridge figure between the Beat generation and the hippies. He's smart and learned, but wears it all very lightly and without pretension. He knew everybody, and has stories to tell. He ran the old Peace Eye bookstore, played in The Fugs, and published the best-named literary journal of its day, Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts (its day, remember, was stuffier than ours, a time when the spirit of Robert Lowell presided over Serious Poetic Concerns). But that's really the Sanders of the short stories and semi-memoirs collected in Tales of Beatnik Glory, which I never quite managed to get through. The Sanders with the cashew-can allure is, for me, the poet. Just what is it that he has that I can't get enough of?

I think the quality in question has something to do with the combination of voice and subject in his books of poetry — a combination unusual enough in the main meteorological zones of our current poetic climate to be called counter-cultural.

One of Sanders' earlier books is called Investigative Poetry (also, if I remember correctly, the title of a course he taught at Naropa), and the title gives a pretty good sense of the main current of Sanders' poetry. He writes long poems that are investigations — into history, for the most part (as in his ongoing poetic history of America, with thick volumes named after different decades of the twentieth century, and a slimmer one devoted solely to the year 1968). Multi-volume projects involving the presentation of history in poetry are on the unusual side lately, and a full-scale biography written in poetry is even rarer (Sanders has written one about his longtime pal Allen Ginsberg called, appropriately enough, The Poetry and Life of Allen Ginsberg: A Narrative Poem). But it's not just the subject that makes Sanders an unusual poet: it's the way he uses language and form when treating those subjects.

Sanders's use of language and form are unusual by both the standards of poetry and of history and biography. Consider the historian and his cousin the biographer. Generally (and of course there are exceptions), these are people who write with an emphasis on objectivity — that is, they rarely draw much attention to themselves in the text, where the focus is intended to be on the information they present. The prose sends off signals by its style, of course, but those signals tend to be of a very particular kind: footnotes, citations, a restricted use of the more informal range of diction, and a certain non-first-person-y style — all of these things signify professionalism, and the adherence to the codes of conduct suitable for writers of the kind of history and biography that wish to be taken seriously as matters of record.

Then there's Sanders. His work includes reference to plenty of archival documents, some of which he has obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, and he shows remarkable knowledge about some of his subjects. But his style is nothing like that of the professional historian. Everywhere, he signals a kind of casualness (abbreviations, neologisms and nonce-words, profanity, low-range diction, exclamation points, digressions, what have you) making it clear that, while this is history or biography, this isn't being written in the mode of the professional historian or biographer.

Line breaks play a big role here: the very fact of them indicates we are dealing with something other than a piece of professional history or biography. Sanders' system of lineation is variable: sometimes he likes a clever enjambment, but not often. Sometimes he does something that looks like the triads of William Carlos Williams, but without the iambic beat that so often comes into play in Williams. Sometimes he breaks with syntax. It's generally not particularly musical, or terribly subtle. Here's an example pulled at random:

The Sandanistas nationalized some industries
& right-wingers around the world rolled their eyes
                                    in Domino-Theory dread

This isn't the line break as a way of measuring out metrical beats, rhymes, anaphoric repetitions, or any other sound unit, really. Nor is it any kind of clever e.e. cummings page-trick. If there's any function to the line breaks, here, it's probably the same function the ampersand has: as a way of saying "this isn't written the way professional history is written." The figurative language, too, though nothing fancy, serves a similar function — That eye-roll comment isn't quite the thing you'd expect from a professional historian like, say, Robert Caro, even though it's true enough. It's just a bit too casual.

So what's Sanders' game? I think, at some level too deep to have been a deliberate choice, he's actually working in the tradition Wordsworth justified in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and for much the same reason. Here's the opening part of Wordsworth's famous definition of the poet from that preface:

Taking up the subject, then, upon general grounds, let me ask, what is meant by the word Poet? What is a Poet? to whom does he address himself? and what language is to be expected from him?—He is a man speaking to men...

When I teach Wordsworth, I like to show this bit to my students, and then, after we've established the "one of the guys" quality of the Wordsworthian poet, follow it up with the next part of the sentence: "He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind..." Woo! Hah! There's a 180-degree turn: the poet is one of the guys, but he's also, you know, better and special, and has a larger soul. There's the Romantic paradox, nor are we entirely free of it to this day. But the paradox of the Wordsworthian poet isn't what's interesting for a discussion of Sanders. What's important is that first part. Wordsworth is setting poets up as those-who-speak-as-whole-people, not those-who-speak-as-specialists. He doesn't want the poet to communicate the way people communicate when they write from their professional positions. A judge speaks of you in legal terms ("the defendant is guilty"); a physician speaks of you in medical terms ("you're going to have to reduce your intake of salted cashews, or your cholesterol will be elevated"); an accountant speaks of you in economic terms ("your deductions aren't high enough to justify an audit"), etc. etc. But the special role of the poet, in Wordsworth's view, is to speak not as, and not to, a specialist. He's a whole person speaking to a whole person.

This is actually a pretty common Romantic position, and it crops up in various permutations and combinations (Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man offer notes towards a program of cultivating the whole person, for example). But why, one wonders, would this emphasis on the whole person, on the man speaking to men, come about when and where it did?

It seems pretty clear that ideas like Wordsworth's came about as reactions to the move toward specialization in social roles (and therefore in communicative styles) in societies effected by the growth of capitalism. Specialization in economic function in England from the late eighteenth century on brought about enormous increases in productivity, but also brought about an anxiety about the effects of such specialization on individuals. Adam Smith, for example, worried about the effect of "a person's whole attention [being] bestowed on the 17th part of a pin, or the 80th part of a button."

The move to specialization was very real, and very rapid, and people (especially men) felt a real pressure to redefine themselves in terms of economic specialty. Here, for example, is what historians Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have to say about it in Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850:

Moves towards masculine identification with occupation... can be discerned in official documents such as trade directories, where gentry status continued to be designated by 'gentleman' and 'lady'.... By mid [19th] century, middle-class men were beginning to be marked out by an occupational title which grew more precise and sophisticated. The evolution of the census follows a similar pattern. The early census, from 1801 to 1821, roughly categorized families as agricultural or in 'trade manufacture.' By 1831, families were abandoned and adult males were divided into nine major occupational groups.

Things of a kind that have become so established as to feel natural to us now (filling out a section of a form titled 'occupation,' for example, or asking, over little glasses of bad wine at some dire gallery opening, "so, what do you do?") were new, then, and on the rise. Wordsworth was looking, with whatever degree of success or failure, to define some discursive space against the rising tide of specialization.

It's a pretty radical vision that Wordsworth presents, in that it is very much against the socio-economic currents of his time. It's also a vision shared by Karl Marx, who foresaw, in the imagined post-revolutionary end of alienated labor, an end to the artistic specialist. In the world he dreamed of, Marx said, there "won't be any painters, but at the most men who, among other things, also paint" (I don't have this with me in English, but you can get the German original in Michael Lifschitz's edition of Marx's essays on aesthetics and letters, Über Kunst und Literatur).

So in the combination of voice and subject, there's a sense — a sense deeper than simple affiliation with Beatniks and hippies — that Sanders is a counter-cultural figure. His writing is, in its very warp and woof, set against the communicative norms of its time.

Then there are the norms of poetry — looser, more rapidly changing set of norms than those of the professional historian or biographer. Sanders work sets itself against the dominant conventions of this little demimonde no less certainly than it sets itself against the norms of the historian.

We live, after all, at a historical moment when the poet is very much a kind of specialist (I've written about this before). While Wordsworth resisted the incipient logic of specialization, a great many poets now, especially in the U.S. are creatures of that logic. They're specialists — often academic specialists, with an official job title indicating that they are poets, with professional publication expectations in the specialized field of poetry. I don't mean to say this is good, bad, or indifferent — I just want to note the fact. As Ron Silliman once put it:

The primary institution of American poetry is the university. In addition to its own practices, it provides important mediation and legitimation functions for virtually every other social apparatus that relates to the poem....Regardless of what we may think of the situation, the university is the 500 pound gorilla at the party.

Every period has some kind of role for the poet, and inevitably that role conditions style. Think of how Tennyson's late work was shaped by the simple fact that poetry, for his generation, functioned as a market commodity (this led him to narrative, and to High Sentiment, be it nationalistic, moralistic, or what have you). Or think of how the end of poetry as a viable market commodity led poets to a very different place (aestheticism, and later modernism).

I don't think it's a coincidence that, since the movement of poets into the academy, there's been an increasing emphasis on drawing attention to language and form. When the first wave of poets hit the beaches of academe under the banner of the New Criticism, they were much concerned with the poem as a matter of language and style, as opposed to, say, its content, or ability to lift the spirits and instill morality or whatever. One could supply a million quotes here, but let's settle for a short one, from W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley who wrote, in “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “poetry is a feat of style." This is how the poet (and critic of poetry) could be a specialist: he wasn't just someone who put ideas that more properly belonged in the philosophy or sociology or history department into verse (or who talked about such ideas when they showed up in verse) — he was a bona fide specialist in his own right, because he had something (style in language) he could claim as belonging to his particular expertise.

I know there are people out there who think that contemporary poetic practice is somehow the opposite of what the New Critics believed in, and I'm prepared for them to throw a dented can of old Spaghetti-Os or two at my head — indeed, I'm armed against it! But more recent waves of poets entering the academy have also shown an emphasis on poetry as a special kind of language, distinct from prose. (This wasn't always the case — as Roland Barthes argues in Writing Degree Zero, there are long periods in history when the continuity of prosaic and poetic language is seen as much greater than any differences). I'm sure the rapid and enthusiastic uptake of Language Poetry into academe had a great deal to do with the emphasis in such poetry on language that breaks the norms of communicative prose. This was a language special to poetry, and therefore something with an affinity to institutions based on specialization. And elliptical poetry, certainly the dominant form of our time and place, is to a great extent characterized by its insistence on not following the syntactic rules of prose. This is not to say that poets sit down and say "well, we live in a time of the poet-as-specialist, so I'd better write something that draws attention to the way it is different from prose, thus proving I'm a specialist." I'd say the process is subtler, and that shifts in how one writes based on the institutional and cultural conditions of poetry come about much like the shifts in people's accents: there's a long, slow, generally unconscious change in response to prevailing conditions, and suddenly one finds one has lost one's Canadian vowels — so richly redolent of the Scottish settlement of Canada — and replaced them with the band-saw nasal whine of the American midwest.

Sanders, of course, has little in his poetry that is different from good, clever, casual prose (though a lot that sets it apart from the prose of professional historians). Other than line breaks, there's little that signals affinities for the dominant modes of poetry in our time. So, in his prosiness, his syntactical ordinariness, he operates at a remove from the poetic culture of our moment and its main mode. He's counter-cultural in an age of specialization. I like that — it might even be better than cashews, Fat Tire, and Tremé.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Trigons in London!

I've been holding off blogging about Trigons, John Matthias' latest book, since I want to review it properly (if I ever dig myself out from beneath the papers and poems of the late great Göran Printz-Påhlson, which I've been editing for months). Those of you to the east of the Atlantic have a chance to get a taste of what Matthias' new work is like, though, at a reading sponsored by Shearsman Press later this month. Here's the official propaganda:


We published John Matthias’ new collection Trigons a short while ago.

John is visiting the UK shortly and will give a reading at the University of Notre Dame’s London facility. Below is the official invitation to the event; if anyone wants to attend, please follow the instructions at the boom of the page.

Poetry Reading, Book Launch, Signing, and Reception
Notre Dame London Program Building
1-4 Suffolk Street
London SW1 Y4HG
(Next to the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square)
Monday, 21 June 2010, 6:15 p.m.

You are cordially invited to a poetry reading, book launch and signing by Professor John Matthias, editor of Notre Dame Review and author or twelve volumes of poetry, along with many translations, critical essays, and scholarly books. This reading is Matthias’s first in London for many years. His earliest British publications date from the early 1970s when he lived in Suffolk, Cambridge, and Little Shelford. He has been Visiting Fellow in poetry at Clare Hall, Cambridge, and is currently a Life Member. His recent books of poetry have been published exclusively by British publishers, Salt Publishing in Cambridge and Shearsman Books in Exeter. Carcanet Press has also just released an anthology, Five American Poets, including Matthias’s work alongside that of the four other poets of his immediate generation who attended Stanford University in the 1960s, Robert Hass, James McMichael, John Peck, and Robert Pinsky. A critical volume on these five poets written by Matthias’s former student Robert Archambeau, Laureates and Heretics: Five Careers in American Poetry, will also be available at the reading along with the Carcanet anthology and these books by Matthias:

Working Progress, Working Title, Salt Publishing, 2002
New Selected Poems, Salt Publishing, 2004
Kedging: New Poems, Salt Publishing, 2007

and especially the book just published that is to be celebrated at the reading and launch:

Trigons, Shearsman Books. 2010

Trigons derives its title from an obscure Roman ball game mentioned by Petronius in Satyricon. The word also has meanings in the fields of music, astrology, gemology, architecture, poetics, and comic book illustration, all relevant to this book that is sub-titled “Seven Poems in Two Sets and a Coda.” Trigons shares something of the same spirit as Matthias’s two most extravagantly inventive experimental sequences, Automystifstical Plaice and Pages. The following are representative comments about Matthias’s work as a poet: “Robert Duncan: “Matthias is a Goliard…one of those wandering souls out of a Dark Age in our own time”; Guy Davenport: “One of the best poets in the USA”; Robert Hass: “A powerful historical and geographical imagination”; Stand magazine: “A splendidly wrought mosaic of western culture and history shot through with personal inquiry and discovery”; Parnassus: “One ‘Briggflatts’ after another”; Times Literary Supplement: “Bursting with masterful intelligence”.

If you plan to attend this event, please notify the Notre Dame London Program Office by email or phone.; tel: 020-7484-7811.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Research in the Humanities: Intellectually Central, Economically Essential, and Probably Doomed

Research in the humanities is, we are told, is in peril. One group of handwringers glances at a set of data about whose work gets cited in English departments, and tells us the humanities have become an intellectual backwater. Another set of worriers tells us that the humanities are helpless in the face of fresh demands to prove their utility. Neither group, though, knows how to read the data held in their trembling hands — data that, in fact, tells us that the humanities are both intellectually vital and of enormous (albeit indirect) social utility.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m pretty sure there is no cause for optimism. The dark clouds looming on the horizons have nothing to do with any real intellectual or utilitarian deficiency on the part of humanists, though. No, those clouds come from the narrow-mindedness and, more importantly, the historical ignorance of those in charge of allocating research funding. The only good news for American humanists is that we’re not going to suffer nearly as much, or as soon, as our British colleagues, who must find a way to exist under a regime of odious knuckleheads who seem to be willfully set on the ham-fisted destruction of the only system of humanities research in the world that rivals, and in many instances exceeds, our own.


The first sort of worry — the fear that the humanities have become an intellectual backwater, incapable of producing important thought — comes from what I take to be a misreading of a set of data provided last year by Thomson Reuters’ ISI Web of Science (the data itself is from 2007, but it was disseminated by the Times Higher Education Supplement in March of 2009). The data consists of a list of the number of times different thinkers were cited in books of humanities scholarship. Here’s the list:

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) Philosophy, sociology, criticism 2,521
Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) Sociology 2,465
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) Philosophy 1,874
Albert Bandura (1925- ) Psychology 1,536
Anthony Giddens (1938- ) Sociology 1,303
Erving Goffman (1922-1982) Sociology 1,066
Jurgen Habermas (1929- ) Philosophy, sociology 1,049
Max Weber (1864-1920) Sociology 971
Judith Butler (1956- ) Philosophy 960
Bruno Latour (1947- ) Sociology, anthropology 944
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) Psychoanalysis 903
Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) Philosophy 897
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Philosophy 882
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) Philosophy 874
Noam Chomsky (1928- ) Linguistics, philosophy 812
Ulrich Beck (1944- ) Sociology 733
Jean Piaget (1896-1980) Philosophy 725
David Harvey (1935- ) Geography 723
John Rawls (1921-2002) Philosophy 708
Geert Hofstede (1928- ) Cultural studies 700
Edward W. Said (1935-2003) Criticism 694
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) Sociology 662
Roland Barthes (1915-1980) Criticism, philosophy 631
Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) Anthropology 596
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) Political theory 593
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) Criticism, philosophy 583
Henri Tajfel (1919-1982) Social psychology 583
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Philosophy 583
Barney G. Glaser (1930- ) Sociology 577
George Lakoff (1941- ) Linguistics 577
John Dewey (1859-1952) Philosophy, psychology, education 575
Benedict Anderson (1936- ) International studies 573
Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) Philosophy 566
Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) Psychoanalysis, philosophy, criticism 526
Thomas S. Kuhn (1922-1996) History and philosophy of science 519
Karl Marx (1818-1883) Political theory, economics, sociology 501
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) Philosophy 501

What, one wonders, gives cause for concern here? Well, according to Mark Bauerline, the problem is this: the list reveals the intellectual moribund nature of the largest swath of humanities scholarship, the work done in literature departments. Here’s what he says in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Literature departments make up the bulk of the humanities, but when it comes to humanities scholarship, literary thinkers and theorists and critics and scholars are overlooked for leading minds in other areas—philosophy, linguistics, sociology, psychology, anthropology.

I don't know the criteria by which thinkers are placed in particular intellectual fields. I suspect it isn't particularly rigorous. Judith Butler, for example, is listed as a philosopher, but she is employed not by a philosophy department, but by the Rhetoric and Comparative Literature Departments of the University of California — Berkeley. Roland Barthes is listed as a specialist in criticism and philosophy, but his training was in classical literature, grammar, and philology, and his academic posts initially concerned lexicology and sociology. Later he held a chair in “Sémiologie Littéraire,” and his most-read writings are on literature and on popular culture. So when Bauerline lets out a plaintive cry about what he takes to be the “near-total absence of people who were trained in and inhabited literature departments,” one has to wonder just how merited that cry really is.

But to concentrate on the dodgy categorization Reuters sets up and Bauerline picks up is to miss a larger point: Bauerline makes the assumption that, because it draws on research in a wide range of fields, literary scholarship has become in some sense a backwater, a place that must look elsewhere for “guidance and inspiration” and that doesn’t originate ideas itself.

As another set of data reveals, though, it is precisely because of this drawing on interdisciplinary sources that humanities research has become of central importance to academic research as a whole.

Before we look at the data about the centrality of humanities research, and the role of interdisciplinary inspiration in creating that centrality, we should take a look at the other kind of worry about the humanities: the fear that it simply cannot justify itself in the utilitarian terms in which it is increasingly forced to justify itself.


If you want an example of the humanities being forced onto the Procrustean bed of utilitarianism, you’ll find the best example in Britain. “What?” you say in disbelief, “Britain? Didn’t U.S. News and World Report just tell us that four of the half-dozen best universities in the world are British?” Yeah. They did tell us that. And they might be right. But don’t expect that to last, at least as far as the humanities are concerned, if the British government has its way. The Higher Education Funding Councils, which are in charge of the vast majority of research funding in Britain, are well on their way to implementing a wretched piece of bureaucratic inanity called the “Research Excellence Framework,” administered by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. Why is this wretched? Because, with all the arrogance of an administrator who thinks he’s bringing the “assessment of outcomes” to an insufficiently regulated field, the program demands the crudest, shortest-sighted kind of accountability. The REF demands, on penalty of a 25% cut in funding, that humanities departments show the impact of their research on the public and the usefulness of their research for industry. Showing the importance of scholarship for other researchers in the field, or even for scholarship in other fields, is not considered important. Rather, one must show that, say, one’s research on medieval history has, for example, been incorporated into the latest Robin Hood movie, and that it has added value (one assumes economic value) to that movie. And — get this — it is the department’s responsibility to A. bring its research to the attention of the public and of industry and B. prove that the research has had an impact on the public or industry. So not only will research have to be conducted with specific, immediately utilitarian ends in mind — departments will have to devote time, energy, and money to shilling their research, and will have to similarly expend resources tracking its immediate impact, and convincing the suits that this impact is of measurable worth. If this policy is implemented, it will be the end of a world-class system of academic humanistic study. It could bring serious research to an end, and, if it lasts for a decade, it could disrupt graduate education in the humanities to such a degree that Britain will lose its place at the forefront of the humanities for generations, perhaps forever. (If you want to grasp the full breadth and depth of the idiocy of the REF, have a look at Stefan Collini’s essay in the first issue of the Cambridge Literary Review, a shorter version of which appeared in the London Review of Books).

We in the United States are spared from the full force of this crudely utilitarian assault (not, as we shall see, to be confused with enlightened utilitarianism) not through any innate virtue on the part of our administrators. No, we are spared, to the degree that we are spared, by the decentralized nature of our academic system. As Frank Donoghue has pointed out in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities, the American academy is under assault by many of the same crudely utilitarian forces the British face. But higher education in America is composed of a loose network of fifty different state systems, several relevant federal agencies, and many private and religious institutions of size and importance. In the U.K., the Higher Education Funding Councils play a greater role than any single American force. There are times when decentralization is a disadvantage, but this is not one of them. We’ll suffer a death from a thousand blows. The British humanists are being led to a guillotine.

Those who seek to defend the humanities against the crude utilitarianism that demands quantifiable evidence of the impact of humanistic research beyond the academy have, as a rule, not tried to answer utilitarianism on its own terms. Instead, they have appealed elsewhere, to notions of intrinsic value, or of the necessity of humanities for democracy, or the like. Have a look at the letters section of any recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement and you’ll see one kind of example or another. To get an idea of the kind of argument being made, you don’t need to look any farther than the title of the book Martha Nussbaum has written (with characteristic, Joyce Carol Oates-level speed) on the topic: Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

But here’s the thing: one need not change the terms of argument. There’s a perfectly good utilitarian argument for keeping the humanities well-funded. And it comes from the same very same set of data that refutes the idea that the humanities are a backwater because they draw on other disciplines.


Anecdotal evidence for the value of humanities research outside the humanities abounds. My favorite pieces come from “The Unintended Value of the Humanities,” an article Stephen J. Mexal wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Research in history and literary studies has also shaped the world of national intelligence. When the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, predecessor of the CIA) was established, in 1942, the director, William J. Donovan staffed his agency with humanities professors. More than 50 historians alone were hired to develop the OSS's analytical methods. These scholars adopted the framework of humanities research—the footnote, the endnote, the bibliography, cross- and counter-indexing—to give order and form to the practice of intelligence analysis. That, in turn, enabled the OSS to do things like compile a list of foreign targets in order of importance on less than a day's notice.

James J. Angleton, who became chief of counterintelligence for the CIA, understood that the interpretive skills he had cultivated by studying works of literary scholarship like I.A. Richards's Practical Criticism (1929) and William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) could help create new methods of intelligence synthesis and information management. Research methods developed by humanities scholars, in sum, essentially invented the science of intelligence analysis.

Great stuff! So great, in fact, that I demand someone write a novel based on these incidents, that said novel be turned into a movie, and that the movie be available on my cable service tonight. But anecdotal evidence is not the sort of thing with which to impress utilitarian administrators seeking evidence of the instrumental value of the humanities (or, more likely, seeking the absence of such evidence, so that they’ll be able to trim their budgets in these financially challenging times).

What one really needs to placate the utilitarian mind is something by way of quantifiable data about the importance of research in the humanities. Luckily, such data is in fact available, and from a source well-respected by suits everywhere: the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A group there has rigorously tracked the online patterns of scholarly journal reading (a process subtler than the mere tracking of citations), and created a chart of which academic disciplines influence researchers in other disciplines.

One result — no doubt surprising to some — is that the humanities turn out to be tremendously influential on virtually all other fields. They are, indeed, at the center of the map of influence. The article itself provides a deeply-detailed set of explanations, but the data visualization chart makes the point pretty clearly. The white and grey marks indicate what we think of as humanistic fields:

While the chart confirms there’s no direct link between humanities research and, say, manufacturing or genetics, it does show the influence of humanistic fields on economics, which in turn influences production research and through production research influences manufacturing; and it shows the influence of the humanities on ecology, which in turn influences things connected to genetics and, say, animal behavior. Fields that do have direct, instrumental impact on industry draw from the humanities (as the researchers put it, their data should “correct the underrepresentation of the social sciences and humanities that is commonly found in citation data”). This is not to say that non-instrumentalist arguments for the humanities like Martha Nussbaum’s are wrong. Rather, the data here shows that the influence of the humanities on more immediately utilitarian fields is very real. Along with any moral or civic arguments for the humanities, we have a very strong, very clear, very demonstrable utilitarian argument.

When Stephen Mexal writes about the Los Alamos data, he points out that “the graph suggests that the humanities act as a bridge among disciplines,” which brings us to another point: the intellectual vitality of the humanities. While Mark Bauerline looked at the most-cited figures in humanities books and despaired, we can see the interdisciplinarity as a sign of life. Indeed, it would seem that the humanities function as a place where ideas from different disciplines come together, and then follow new and unexpected paths into other fields. The humanities hold a vital, even central, place in the ecosystem of ideas, and if they suffer, everything suffers.

So: if humanities research funding dries up, we may not be able to show any immediate effect on specific industries. But there will be an effect on industry, since humanistic research effects virtually all other fields, and various fields find their way to influence upon one another through the synthesizing activity of the humanities.

A predictable consequence of reduced humanities research is that some innovations will never occur, and some instrumentally useful effects will never come into being. We just won’t know which ones. We quite literally won’t know what we’re missing.


One would hope that the utilitarian, administrative minds calling on the humanities to justify themselves would be satisfied with what the Los Alamos data shows, but don’t get your hopes up. We face two nearly insurmountable problems in getting these people to recognize the truth about the instrumental value of humanistic research. Firstly, there is the matter their shortsightedness (they are, remember, crude utilitarians, not enlightened ones); and secondly, there is the matter of their historical ignorance.

The shortsightedness is most clearly manifest in the British “Research Excellence Framework,” which can be counted upon to provide examples of boneheadedness in almost any context (it really is astonishing, and makes even our own most egregious acts of administrative cretinism, like the so-called “assessment” movement, seem only mildly dipshitty in comparison). The REF, we must recall, specifies that in order to be considered valid for funding, research must be shown to have an effect beyond an influence on other research. Intervening steps, by which innovation is diffused and ideas exchanged — steps such as those shown by the Los Alamos data — are too subtle for the REF. Furthermore, the structure of the assessment exercise is such that one has to show the direct influence, not of fields of research, but of particular pieces of research. While the Los Alamos data shows that the humanities have a wide influence, it cannot show that a particular humanistic article helps produce a specific industrial effect. There may be some people involved in the REF who think this is some kind of rigor, when in fact it is something else entirely. It’s roughly analogous to a government agency demanding that environmentalists trace the death of a particular shrub to the burning of a specific discarded tire, and refusing to believe that the burning of industrial waste has an environmental impact if such specific links can’t be shown.

The historical ignorance compounds our problems. It’s as if those entrusted with the future of the university research had no notion whatsoever of the history of such research. Since the Brits are leading the way in imbecilic policy, let’s treat this matter in terms of the history of British universities since their reform in the nineteenth century. Prior to university reform, there was little research of any kind done in British universities, which were devoted to the preparation of the clergy. Industries sponsored various kinds of research outside of the universities, generally with an eye toward its immediate instrumental value (the textile industry, for example, sponsored research on chemical dyes). But, as the historian T.W. Heyck makes clear in The Transformation of Intellectual Life in Victorian England, this kind of research was, over the course of the nineteenth century, outstripped by the results of research conducted in German universities. The Germans were the first to adopt the modern research university system, in which disinterested research was conducted for its own sake by professionals unanswerable to industry, or to any norms beyond those of their professional field. As it happened, this kind of comprehensive, across-the-board, in-all-subjects, research happened to produce more powerful and far-reaching knowledge than the directly utilitarian research conducted on the British industry-sponsored model. The Victorian bourgeoisie reacted with the kind of intelligence and clear-headedness you’d expect from a class that was daily proving itself capable of global dominance, and set out to replicate the German model in Britain (hybridizing it, where necessary, with the existing model). The results were positive: once directly demonstrable instrumental ends were removed as a criteria for research funding, Britain began to emerge as the intellectual powerhouse it remains. And the results for British industry and public life were incalculably positive.

It’s the incalculable part that’s going to be a problem, I suppose. The current crowd of crude utilitarians at the helm of British higher education — and the similar crowd running our own more unwieldy, and therefore in this instance less vulnerable, system — don’t quite have the vision of the enlightened utilitarians who guided both of our countries into global intellectual and economic ascendancy. One wonders what the Chinese, whose universities are becoming better-funded in all research fields, think of the reduced vision of our leadership. Maybe someday their scholars will make a study of what became of our universities.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Of Schlubs and Tweedy Motherf*ckers: How Profs Dress

It’s been a while since I heard from the jittery fiend who calls himself Raskolnikov P. Firefly, a former colleague of mine long since gone AWOL into the wilds of the extra-academic world, but this morning I found what appeared to be one of his dispatches. Imagine my surprise to see it there, when I opened my box of crullers from the Dunkin’ Donuts drive through: a yellowed manuscript with several cigarette holes and the un-definable odor, something between curry and cat-piss, redolent of Rasko’s old office out near the Buildings & Grounds headquarters, the office he held on to until security removed him from campus after an incident too horrifying to report here in any detail. It seems his research interests have changed: while once he was concerned to catalog the rich twits of Chicago’s north shore, he has now returned to his academic roots, preparing the following document on the sartorial habits of the academic tribe. Behold and wonder.


An Aesthetico-Anthropological Prologomenon to Further Inquiry into the Clothing and Appearance of the Professorial Hominid: Preliminary Researches and Findings

By Raskolnikov T. Firefly, B.Sc., M.Phil. M.F.A., Ph.D., former life-fellow of Quisling Hall, by-fellow of the University of Saskatoon (retired), rector of discipline of the College of Pataphysical Medicine (removed), independent scholar (impoverished).


Lurking in the well-tended juniper bushes of land-grant colleges, squatting beneath the faux-gothic gargoyles of Californian technology institutes, rushing unapprehended through painfully air-conditioned corridors in brutalist concrete administrative annexes, and cadging untended tamales in cafeterias. Supplemental research from behind the dumpsters near faculty lounges, and, once, from behind that dieffenbachia you’re looking at.

Research Results:

The apparel and physical presentation of the professorial ranks in Anglophone countries (European funding not yet having been forthcoming, except from the ill-kempt nations of the Baltic coasts) can be classified into nine categories, each of which is correctly subdivided into two subordinate taxonomical categories. Viz.:

1. Vagrant

1.A. Mere Schlub

You have seen him in his rumpled cargo shorts and comic-book t-shirts, his filthy sneakers and his soiled athletic socks. In winter, you have seen him substitute filthy army pants or Carhart work trousers for said shorts. You have seen him dress up for formal events and funerals by throwing a stained and buttonless suit jacket or an unevenly worn corduroy jacket over his existing outfit. You have not seen him shave, for his is the freedom, the glorious autonomy, of the Man Who Need Not Impress. {Personal note scrawled in manuscript margin: “Attn.: Archambeau”}

1.B. Park Bench Sleeper

These are among the most distinguished of all academics, driven by monomania to attend to no matters but their research. Hence the filthy, unevenly buttoned Oxford shirts, frayed at the collar and encrusted with what we can only hope is nothing more offensive than well-aged youghurt. Hence the transcendence beyond mismatched socks to the sublime and rarified realm of mismatched shoes. Common in Chicago’s Hyde Park, near M.I.T., and in the common room of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Much awkwardness ensues at the formal Nobel receptions to which these figures, with some regularity, repair.

2. Aging Hipster

2.A. Low Hipster

Clad in work-shirts with embroidered name tags bearing words like “Bud” or “Mickey,” these are the professors you find hanging out on the foam-stuffed Swedish furniture in college radio station lounges. Do not call them by the names on their clothing, as these are never their actual names. Do not attempt to identify the band named on the tiny pin worn on the straps of their shoulder bags: you neither know of the band, nor can you pronounce its name, since it features an umlaut with an extra dot.

2.B. High Hipster

Diesel jeans? Nope, that was ten years ago. But the skinny jeans and bowling shoes worn by the high hipster prof did cost more than your car. So did the tight-fitting sweater and the oddly shaped glasses, which are the same odd shape as those worn by all architects, graphic designers, advertising copy writers, entertainment lawyers, entertainment accountants, entertainment actuaries, and entertainment podiatrists.

3. Sales Team

3.A. Stereo Salesman

Chinos. Golf shirt. All that’s missing is a nametag, really.

3.B. Insurance Salesman

These poor lost souls wear suits, or suit pants and a tucked-in Oxford shirt. The depths of their silent desperation are unfathomable, unless they are economists, in which case the depth of silent desperation exists in direct proportion to the gulf between their salaries and those of Wall Street bankers.

4. Tweedy Motherfucker

4.A. Dandaical Pseudo-Aristocrat

He probably teaches Irish literature, or possibly pre-twentieth century art history. He updates his Facebook profile picture with alarming frequency, but all pictures show his sneer of cold command. Cast a cold eye on him, horseman, and pass by.

4.B. Starring in His Mental Movie as “Professor”

Tweed jacket. Knit tie. Possible beard, possible Camelot-era Kennedy haircut. He walks abstractedly across the quadrangle, watching a movie that plays in the drive-in theater of his cranium. The movie is called “I am, at last, a professor.” The plot is like that of Pinnochio, who yearned to be a real boy. This is the only species of professor other than the Insurance Salesman to carry a briefcase rather than a shoulder bag (or the discarded plastic shopping bag of the Park Bench Sleeper).

5. Field and Stream

5.A. Manly Archeologist

His bald head is bronzed. His white beard is grizzled. His camp shirt is open at the neck, and his burly legs extend from beneath his khaki shorts like elegant oaken shafts. He could get away with a goddam ascot if he wanted to, because he is The World’s Most Interesting Man. You are not him.

5.B. Pudgy Birder

Failed example of subcategory 5.A., above.

6. Nun

6.A. Secular Nun

No one but she has so thoroughly mastered the art of the turtleneck beneath the plaid jumper. No one but she knows where such jumpers can be purchased. No one has more ergonomic footwear.

6.B. Actual Nun

Rarely seen outside of the microhabitat of South Bend, Indiana.

7. Real Estate Lady

7.A. Sleek Real Estate Lady

If you’ve seen those pictures of real estate agents on benches at bus stops, you know the type: grinning impossibly white grins from beneath impossibly blonde hair, wearing suits in bright red or canary yellow, these are among the few female professorial types to co-ordinate the color of their pumps with the color of their outfits. Many are former high school principals now teaching education. In fact, they may all be former high school principals now teaching education.

7.B. Bedraggled Real Estate Lady

Picture the a professor from the sub-category 7.A. above. Now picture several young children, and a husband whose sole contribution to raising said children consists of turning the channel to cartoons during dinner. Picture an unrevised dissertation awaiting revision, and a tenure clock ticking in the background, somewhere near the rapidly emptying vodka bottle. Now picture what has happened to her hair and outfit.

8. Flower Child (Advanced Years)

8.A. Big Ole Flowing Skirt Mamas

Common in theater departments and in programs devoted to the teaching of freshman writing. Hard-working and incredibly popular with students, these figures are somehow invisible to high-level administrators and those in charge of tenure and promotion.

8.B. The Jogging and Yoga Set

As they enter their sixties, they pass you with ease on the jogging trail, their gray hair somehow immobile in the wind. The wisdom of their selection of spandex is disputed, unless the professor in question is Martha Nussbaum. They will all outlive you. Yeah, you. You with the meatball sandwich and the Anchor Steam Ale.

9. Librarian

9.A. Tina Fey

I believe you know the type. Much that is black. Sometimes a pencil skirt. And those glasses. Those glasses…

9.B. Tragic Hipster Glasses

…those glasses that, if bent too far up in cat’s eye fashion, can go so tragically wrong.


At this point Raskolnikov’s notes seem to say something apologetic about stereotyping, but I have smeared the pages with donut crumbs and coffee, and his remarks are illegible. Perhaps, with a sufficient grant, I could begin a research program to decipher them.