Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding Ways Out

A little while back, I had a break between classes, and so took to the Internet to fritter away my time, as opposed to tackling yet another paper. I came upon a link to this tremendous and powerful article by Mark Slouka for Harper's Magazine, detailing the ways in which the humanities have been systematically marginalized in the contemporary university; reduced to a romantic novelty in a space now geared less toward the cultivation of effective citizens and more toward the production of hirable employees. The article is long, detailed, and demands your full attention, but if you have the time, I'd highly suggest reading it not only because it articulates a position close to my own heart, but because I feel that it touches on a characteristic of the postmodern humanities ghetto that frequently goes unnoticed (willfully or otherwise) in much of the critical literature on the subject.

Slouka disparages the ways in which the university has become a kind of corporate incubators that places quantitative and "practical" fields of study at the top of their funding lists. After all, how does a university bolster their reputation in the popular press? By citing the success of their alumni. How does the university gauge the success of its alumni? Salary and job title. These arguments are important, and are hard to understate, but perhaps predictable. We've come to expect those in the humanities to scorn their counterparts in business administration, mathematics and the applied sciences. In many ways, people have grown weary of the dusty philosopher, tangled up in complex discursive webs, thrashing through the overgrown jungle of academic erudition. The student or expert of humanities is often thought of as deliberately obscure, offended by the corporate, pragmatic world, forcibly pressed into a subordinate position within the academy and in the workforce at large; losing him or herself in the thrill of academic inquiry by night, silently loathing the business people he or she serves during the lunch rush. And out of this resentment arises an attitude more-or-less unique to the humanities: an embrace of obscurity. If the big kids won't let us play on the jungle gym, we'll take recess in the library, speak in code, baffle them with our obscurity, accept and celebrate our subordinate position out of spite.

This attitude is what Slouka finds reprehensible. How can the humanities resent their position in the university if they actively create it? What right does the expert on shrubbery in Shakespeare have to lament her position within the confines of the humanities department if she deliberately makes her work next to impossible to understand? How can we expect the world to take the humanities seriously if its most devoted practitioners continually reduce it to a derelict heap of jargon and good intentions?

To answer these questions, we have to first ask a bigger, perhaps more metaphysical one: When did art stop believing in itself?

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the Modernist avant-garde was flourishing, the art world was brimful of hope for a better future. Architects like Le Corbusier and Erickson truly thought that, by changing the ways that we built, we could change the way we exist within the world. Picasso tried to re-invent vision one canvas at a time. Vertov tried to create a new, universal, egalitarian language with the movie camera. This is art that would change the world. This is art that had faith in its ability to rethink the inequalities, injustices, and limitations of the modern world. Not just rethink, but reconfigure. This is art that acted. With the Second World War, however, came a sense, that modernism had collapsed on itself. The machine that Le Corbusier and Vertov had envisioned as the road to a more equitable and effective future had been transformed into a force of destruction. Death had become efficient and mechanical. Politics had become a game of aesthetic posturing. History obliterated in the pursuit of the new. Later strains of Modernism attempted to reinvigorate the project of Modernity, but are widely considered to have failed. By the end of the 1960s, Modernism was dead. Postmodernism, that invisible catch-all of 21st century Cultural Studies, seemingly filled the void. Where modern art collapsed upon itself as the result of political manipulation to nefarious ends, postmodern art collapses on itself simply because it can. It cannibalizes itself because it has nothing better to do. Modernism failed to create change, and it had piles of manifestoes, blueprints and road maps specifically designed to meet its own goals. Postmodernism is predicated on hopelessness and nihilism. If there's no hope for change, why develop plans? If you don't have plans, how and what do you create, and for what purpose? Aesthetics cease to be political tools, and become ends in themselves. Art is simply there. On place mats in cheap restaurants. In magazines. On CD covers. In museums. Airports. Bathroom stalls. Art is. And that's all it is.

Don't confuse this for formalism, which assumes that art exists in a vacuum, because even formalism presupposes that there is something beyond art. For art to exist in isolation, it has to exist in isolation from something. Even in a school of thought that seems to thrive on art as neutral and distinct from culture, there is a political dimension- art is seen as different and distinct from the world around it. Difference and exclusion are always, without exception, political issues. Postmodernism does not assume continuity with, or isolation from the world. It just is.

I feel that this is an attitude that needs to be, if not reversed, re-imagined. Art simply can't be taken seriously if it sees itself as silliness, as something that exists because it can. Art must see itself as necessary to be seen as necessary. To tear down the walls of the postmodern ghetto and upset taken-for-granted models of ideological production, the humanities have to regain their humanity. They have to strive for change, not erudition; accessibility, not mystification.

Perhaps this is why many people now consider the vast majority of music, film, television, and literature to be so intolerably boring. If music has no goal but to exist, how can it rouse its listener? Even in art forms generally acknowledged to have a social concern or political agenda, like documentary film, hopelessness reigns. Michael Moore makes controversial films about gun control, capitalist hegemony, and the violence of corporate health care, and yet somehow, his films seem stunningly uninteresting. This is because there is no hope in his films. At the end of Sicko, Moore doesn't propose possible solutions, nor does he provide a set of terms on which health care should operate. Sicko concludes with Moore's own voiceover telling us of how he personally paid for a surgery needed by the wife of a former online enemy. Any hope for broad institutional change is obliderated. The only solution we see manifests at the level of private exchange, a kind of capitulation to the impossibility of reformatting entrenched models of health care funding in the United States. Moore deeply betrays his own goal. He resigns himself to the all-too common position of grudgingly accepting the terms of the world around him, but always seething and sneering at it, feeling always intellectually superior, but institutionally subordinate to those around him. Moore's films are boring because they are all the same, and they are all the same because they are hopeless.

Hopelessness is always the same. Hopelessness is unchanging, stoic. Hope, however, is necessarily dynamic. Hope is always evolving, always adapting to new circumstances, always creating new ways of doing things in the interest of keeping itself alive on uneven ground. Hope is motion and progress.

Hope is what the arts and humanities need. The humanities need to understand that their subordination in a corporate world is not a given, but an imposition that they themselves were complicit in constructing. If we got ourselves into this mess, as the saying goes, we can get ourselves out. All we need is to believe that it's worth it. All we need is to believe that art can change the world. All we need is hope, and the motion, change, and future-focused optimism that it carries with it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Sad Realization

So I was just sifting through some of my old YouTube favorites to find some forgotten gems, and I realized that I have become the WASP-iest, douche-baggiest, spoiled-est jackass on the planet. I actually found myself scoffing and the quality of videos from before when YouTube went Hi-Def.

Old Yeller me. Kthx.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Long Time

No see! I have been wicked busy lately. I'm attempting to balance some rather hefty upper-division classes that tend to run about 4 hours a piece with some new, really exciting volunteer work that I'm doing (deetz later). I'm currently home for the Thanksgiving weekend, and have been indulging in treats in a manner befitting a French monarch, and most importantly, shirking all forms of responsibility (including my as-of-yet incomplete set of essays). I just wanted to take a moment to wish all my fellow Canucks a very warm wish for a happy Thanksgiving and safe travels, if you are embarking on any.

Also (shameless promotion time): if you live in Vancouver or in the GVA, please take a look at these upcoming events put on by, a non-profit media democracy advocacy organization. They're going to be super exciting, and focus on some amazingly important issues and opportunities in the contemporary Canadian media system (Like CanWest filing for bankruptcy protection!).

1. Media Democracy Day Fundraiser at The Railway: Featuring Wintermitts, Greenbelt Collective, Francis Mantis, Pawnshop Diamond and burlesque performances! October 15, 9pm, $10 at the door.

2. FreshMedia Festival: A one-day showcase of the future of media production in Canada, innovative workshops and collaborative art and media projects taking place October 24, at the W2 Gallery space at 112 W. Hastings, beginning at 12 pm. Tickets available for $10 through EventBrite: Followed by the Hot Type after party, also at W2 (access by an additional $5 on your ticket). More information available on Twitter at FreshMediaMe, and through our Tumblr at .

3. Media Democracy Day: Another full day of forums, panel discussions and debates about the ways in which politics and media intersect- both positive and troubling. Takes place November 7, at the downtown Vancouver Public Library, 350 W. Georgia. Information on access and times to follow! For more information, check out the MDD Twitter stream at MediaDemocDay or our website.

THANKS! Enjoy turkey, folks.