Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Monday, March 28, 2011
Judith Baker, an old and good friend, is currently working in Southern Africa in a program she has had a great deal to do with creating that teaches teachers how to teach writing. Judith is an old leftie, and one of the truly good people in the world. She was in South Africa when I received my honorary degree, but was unable to come to Cape Town, as she had planned, because of her commitments in the rural areas. I feel very deeply the disproportionality between the bits I do, for which I received an honorary doctorate, and the enormous amount she does, for which she receives very little public recognition.
Earlier today I received a circular email she sent to a number of friends about political and ideological issues in Southern Africa. She has agreed to allow me to post it as a guest blog. I am sure you will find it interesting. Here it is:
"This is a musing on political ideology in Africa, so don't feel obligated to read further if that does not interest you. I've been talking with several people including an astute activist from Zimbabwe who has lived all over Africa and been involved with many of the anticolonial leaders over many years. I have been struggling to understand the appeal of people like Mugabe in Zimb, Qaddafi in Libya and others, particularly the leadership in Rwanda and Uganda with whom you may be less familiar, and in South Africa which is of course actually democratic despite a certain level of neoliberal economic madness and corruption. In Zimb, the ruling party is Zanu PF, Mugabe's party. My friend feels that the reason Mugabe actually has a large following is that he does project a credible ideology of returning land and industry to 'the people' and taking it from previous colonial [white] owners. This 'Africanization' ideology resonates strongly with a fairly large portion of the Zimb population, while the opposition does not have as powerful a message, and is also much more influenced by Western and neoliberal economic policy which is even more suspect than it might have been before because of the economic isolation imposed on Zimb. Mugabe blames Zimb's problems on the world economic boycott, particularly the lack of access to credit. Now one thing which has bothered me very much about the US left's political philosophy is that we have a hard time dealing with the critical issue of credit/borrowing. But we all have mortgages and we oppose the balanced gov't budgets that restrict social spending, so we know that credit is a huge issue for those who want to live well, especially for the poor. Mugabe has made his point about the economic blockade, and it wins him many followers. However, my other informed activist friends say very clearly that if that were the actual Mugabe rather than the smoke screen dictator, this ideology might be meaningful, even if limited. However, the real Mugabe is a billionaire and his circle of power is a circle of others who want to take his place, not as an ideologue or leader but as billionaires. The wealth that comes from diamond mining and from mineral concessions in southern Congo [where Zimb forces have been involved many times in exchange for supporting Congolese politicians] never gets discussed much less distributed or used for the common good. When the govt does something which looks really good, for instance over 10,000 young people are given scholarships to study around the world, it is always for 'supporters', never for 'the people' at large. Brook says this is not a system of support for Mugabe but rather an old fashioned 'patronage' system of buying support and controlling and demonizing opponents. Our friend says that though it is so, the Zanu PF activists believe in it very strongly, even apart from their support of the man Mugabe - they 'own' it. Indeed, my friend says that whenever a crime is committed in Zimb, the police solve it quickly as popular support for the justice system is very high and that this makes living in Zimb feel safe and comfortable. However, the very same police officer will come to you and say, look I am watching you, so don't do anything questionable - meaning politically opposed to Zanu PF. He reports feeling very unsafe in Johannesburg or Nairobi where crime is very bad. But he is safe in Harare unless he criticizes Mugabe or joins the opposition. The older generation of African activists was very interconnected - they studied at major hotspots like Univ of Dar es Salaam, Makerere in Uganda, Fort Hare in South Africa - they read Steve Biko and all the anti-colonials like Fanon, Nkrumah, etc - they interacted with Black Liberation leaders and Civil Rights leaders in the US - and for an old person like me, they provided ideological leadership and controversy and a forum to discuss ideas. Those who remain activists work on AIDS and economic development and education, etc, but feel cut off and isolated to a large extent. They also, in my experience, tend to be bitterly disappointed by those who have inherited or taken over their governments. In short, they are like us - working hard on issues, but have no 'ism' or unifying theory or philosophy - and thus nothing with a name to pass along to the next generations. But unlike us, a lot of that generation became the post-colonial government and power structure, so that whole piece needs a separate examination. As for Libya, I think Obama will get a lot of credit from progressive Africans for his support of a multinational response to Qaddafi's threats against the rebels. We'll see later if that will turn into something else, but I think people feel that Obama has genuinely tried to involve Africans in this, has listened to them, and has, unlike Clinton and Bush, actually supported people who asked for support. I have no idea whether this will turn out to have been the right thing to do or not. I wish I could see the future, but having seen anti-colonials turn into dictators, and knowing little about the 'rebels' themselves, I would not venture a guess. What I will say, however, is that IF some of these rebels begin to engage philosophically and ideologically with the world community, we should also engage. Wherever there is a forum where we can talk about what we believe and how we should work to achieve change, we should be there in some way. I don't think we have an 'ism' with which to proselytize, but I do think we can be a legitimate member of the discussion."
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Oh well, there is always Michelle Bachman.
A propos, now that Bachman, arguably the craziest person in the U. S. House of Representatives, is about to start a run for the presidency, the news media are doing little backgrounders on her. I recently read that in addition to raising five children of her own, she has served as a foster parent to more than twenty children. Now, any way you want to look at it, that is truly admirable. It does not make her any less crazy, or any less of a spotlight hog, but it does make it a great deal more difficult simply to have contempt for her.
If we are going to ridicule Newt Gingrich because of his appalling record of serial divorces, then fairness demands that we acknowledge Bachman's honorable record of private good works.
Sigh, the world is not nearly so simple as I would like it to be.
I think later today I will say something about Wednesday's seminar class, in which two graduate students made a very interesting presentation about Charter Schools. Some of the data they found are rather surprising.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
In a few days, I hope to resume my series of posts on the future of the Humanities in higher education. I am continuing to pursue the idea of starting some sort of center or institute devoted to defending the Humanities against its enemies foreign and domestic, and will report any developments on that front. I continue to take great pleasure in the discomfiture of the Republicans, and hope against hope that the revival of progressive populist sentiment, sparked by the anti-union efforts of a number of Governors, betokens the long awaited stirring of the great American progressive beast. [A propos, I trust you all noticed that the newly elected Governor of Maine has chosen to take down a mural depicting the history of working people in that state because it was too heavily biased toward -- working people. Apparently the Republicans have decided that their previous attacks on working people were too subtle, and must be made more overt so that no one misses the point.]
Two idle bits of personal reportage about my odd reading habits. While preparing for my South African trip, I downloaded a Kindle App onto my IPad so that I could access free books [my wife's daughter-in-law told me about them], but the only one I could find that was at all tempting was THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, so I downloaded it to read on the plane. It turned out to be monstrously long [1313 pages in one edition I found on Amazon], and it has taken me forever to finish, but I plowed through it, and thought it was great fun. Meanwhile, a new anniversary edition has appeared of the very first Dr. Seuss book: AND TO THINK THAT I SAW IT ON MULBERRY STREET. I loved that book when I was little, so I bought a fresh new copy, and plan to fly out to California to read it to my grandchildren. There are some benefits to being old!
Oh yes, this morning, for ninety-nine cents, I downloaded the King James version of the Bible to my IPad, so I am prepared for all eventualities. [An English version of the Q'uran is also available for ninety-nine cents.]
Monday, March 21, 2011
All of you have watched the horrific pictures of walls of water rolling over Japanese villages, so I need not expatiate on them. But as the problems developed at the nuclear power plants, an old question posed itself in my mind: What is the right way to weigh the pros and cons of a controversial public policy? Nuclear power is clean energy. It does not spew hydrocarbons into the atmosphere day in and day out. Hence, it does not contribute to all manner of environmental and medical evils. But inevitably, predictably, unavoidably, every so often there is a nuclear accident, the consequences of which, as we see, can be horrendous. The rational course seems to be to make careful estimates of the long-term harm of oil and coal, and compare that with the episodic harm of nuclear energy, always of course pushing for maximum safety and minimum harm in both cases. Surely any satisfactory theory of rational choice leads to that conclusion. And yet, I am for some reason not entirely comfortable with that way of making social policy. I welcome your thoughts.
As for the Libyan adventure, it seems wrong to leave the Libyan rebels to be slaughtered by Ghadafi, and wrong to launch yet another war. My own belief, suggested several times on this blog, is that the United States should not have an enormous imperial military establishment in the first place. It ought to have a force only large enough to protect the United States from the -- at this point minuscule -- threat of invasion. Once we build a military establishment that dwarfs that of the entire rest of the world, it is inevitable that we will find all manner of excuses for using it. The Libyan case is actually one of the very rare instances in which the United States can be said to have entered a foreign conflict on the right side, but it would be far better if we had a military force quite incapable of playing that role on the world stage. Sixty-five years of experience since World War II demonstrates that this nation is quite incapable of using its enormous military force wisely or well.
Well, I must prepare to teach the REPUBLIC later this morning. If I manage to get some pictures of the events in South Africa, I will post one or two.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
The University of the Western Cape [UWC] was founded half a century ago by the old apartheid government as a university reserved for the mixed race people whom South Africa calls Coloured. This is a primarily Afrikaans speaking group of people situated in the Western Cape, in and around Cape Town. When Jakes Gerwel was appointed Rector in '88 [I think], he declared UWC South Africa's "University of the Left," and it played an important role in the successful struggle against apartheid. Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and many other ANC leaders were imprisoned, lies off the coast within sight of Cape Town. UWC, when I first visited it in 1986, was a small university of perhaps 7,000 students. It has now grown to 18,000 or more, and enrolls large numbers of African students as well as Coloured students, along with much smaller numbers of Indian students and a small number of White students.
In South Africa, the principal administrative officer of a university holds the title of Vice-Chancellor and Rector. The Chancellorship is an honorary title. The current Vice-Chancellor, a man whom I am proud to call my good friend, is Brian O'Connell. Brian has led the way in the growth and development of UWC, and has also taken a courageous leadership position in the fight against HIV-AIDS on the UWC campus. He long ago appointed Dr. Tania Vergnani to head up that effort, and she, with her aide Joachim Jacobs, has created the best HIV-AIDS awareness and prevention campaign in the country. More about that tomorrow.
I was awarded an honorary doctorate to recognize the work of University Scholarships for South African Students, a little one-man organization I started twenty-one years ago to provide bursaries [i.e., scholarships] for poor Black students going to historically Black universities and technikons in South Africa. [See my autobiography, in the archives of this blog, for a full description, or visit www.ussas.com.] UWC's commencements are held in five or six parts over more than a week. The session in which I received my degree was held on Tuesday evening last, in a beautiful hall [in a newly opened building] holding perhaps a thousand people.
After gathering for a little finger food with senior administrators and guests, we were led into the hall to the strains of Gaudeamus Igitur in academic procession. I took along my bright crimson Harvard doctoral robes, which I have worn all too infrequently over the past fifty-four years. [They were a graduate present from my parents in 1957.] The ceremony itself is quite formal, drawing on Continental and English traditions. The Chancellor sits on a raised chair in the middle of the first row on the stage, and as each graduate for any degree is announced, he or she walks across the stage and kneels before the Chancellor on a red velvet stool. The Chancellor then "caps" the candidate, which is to say taps him or her with a big floppy velvet academic cap. The candidate continues to along the stage and is "hooded" [receives his or her hood] before returning to the audience. A candidate for the doctorate is accompanied by the dissertation director, who reads out a summary of the research that the candidate has completed. Each degree recipient is applauded by the faculty on the stage and the students and guests in the audience.
My honorary doctorate was awarded first, and I am deeply proud to be able to say that the Chancellor who capped me was none other than retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who for twenty-four years has served as the Chancellor of UWC, and is stepping down this year from that post. When I was invited to receive the honor, I immediately composed in my head a one hour address to the students, but Cheryl Jason of the Vice-Chancellor's office told me, after I had accepted the honor, that they hoped I would speak "for three to five minutes." Well, as I explained to the students, anyone who has sat through academic lectures knows that in a one hour lecture there at most three to five minutes worth hearing, so I pared things away to the following remarks, which I duly delivered after receiving my degree:
"Chancellor Tutu, Vice-Chancellor O'Connell, Distinguished Deans and Faculty, Graduates and Friends,
I accept this great honor with pleasure, with gratitude, and with pride. I accept it, not for myself, but for the more than one thousand American men and women who have, over the past two decades, donated faithfully to our scholarship fund so that deserving young men and women here in South Africa may have the opportunity to seek a higher education. I accept it for those generous men and women in South Africa without whose efforts our scholarship programme could not have succeeded: for the late Prem Singh, who taught for many years at the University of Durban-Westville, for Dr. Tania Vergnani, who runs here on the campus of UWC the finest AIDS awareness and prevention campaign in the country, for Rensche Bell, formerly of your Financial Aid Office, who for years looked after the bursary recipients, for your former Chair of Council Sheila Tyeku, who manages the funds I am able to send from America, and I accept it for the bursary recipients, past and present, who have made all of us in the United States so proud.
Twenty-one years ago, on February 3rd, 1990, I had the great privilege of meeting for an hour with His Grace, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, during one of his many visits to America. It was just eight days before Nelson Mandela was to be released from Robben Island, and during the meeting, the Archbishop spoke movingly about the need for re-investment in what would shortly be the new South Africa. Inspired by his words, I founded University Scholarships for South African Students in the hope that I could, in some small way, be a part of the historic transformation about to take place in this beautiful land. Each year, I send appeals to my donors and bring here the bits of money they are generous enough to donate. The amounts are not large -- they dwindle into insignificance in comparison to the need -- but over these twenty-one years we have been able to help more than one thousand five hundred young Black men and women attend South Africa's historically Black universities.
Let me address a few words to those of you who will in a very few moments be awarded the degrees you have worked so hard for. This is a day of joy for you, a day of triumph, and a day of joy and triumph as well for your parents and family who are here today to witness the ceremony. I bring you congratulations from all of my American donors -- from Nobel Laureates, from Professors, from Doctors, from Lawyers, to all of whom I will carry back the happy news that you have successfully completed your studies. This is your day, and you have every right to enjoy it.
But I also bring to you a message, a challenge, an admonition. One hundred fifteen years ago a group of Black women in America founded the National Association of Colored Women, to fight the horrors of lynching and to seek complete equality of all Americans. These women, born as slaves or the daughters of slaves, chose as the motto of their new organization "Lifting As We Climb." They meant by this that as each of them climbed the ladder of success, winning for herself some measure of freedom and equality, she would look back, reach down, and offer a hand to others who were lower down on that ladder. They were not content merely to gain advantage for themselves. They committed themselves to fighting for all of their brothers and sisters, not stopping until they could all say, in the words of the old hymn, "free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we are free at last."
As you receive your well earned recognition on this happy day, I call on you to commit yourselves to helping others in South Africa who have not yet had your advantages. Take as your personal motto, Lifting As I Climb. Find some way in your work, in your daily lives, to look back, reach down, and offer a hand to someone lower on the ladder of success. If you will do that, then I will know that our little organization has truly been a success.
It remains only for me to give to your Rector, Professor O'Connell, a check for this year's USSAS donation to UWC, in the amount of 250,000 Rand. The money sits in a Pretoria bank, and as soon as Sheila Tyeku can pry it loose, it will be sent to this campus to aid more young people to earn their degrees. Thank you once again for this great honor.
Nkosi sikelel iAfrica."
Friday, March 11, 2011
Let me take this opportunity to reply briefly to several comments I have received, either by email or in the Comments section of the blog.
One of my readers interpreted today's post as a complaint about the unfairness of the way in which research monies are distributed to different segments of the higher educational community. I am afraid I must have failed to make myself clear. I do not think it is unfair for the sciences to receive so much more external funding than the Humanities. I simply think this fact poses a challenge to those of us in the Humanities, one that I shall address later in my series of posts, with some practical suggestions, based in part on my own experience in raising somewhat more than two million dollars for programs run by, and in some cases for the benefit, of Humanities programs.
Another reader [with the handle EnglishJerk] asks: "Is there any inconsistency between the claim that the Conversation serves as a spur to reflection and that it holds out the hope of total gratification? For me, the experience of literature is an experience of affective power necessarily combined with a feeling of perplexity, of bafflement; and my interpretive impulse arises from that combination. The experience of literature thus seems to me rather remote from gratification, not least because the powerful affects involved almost never amount of unalloyed pleasure."
This is, I think, a very good description of the experience many of us have when struggling with great literature, or indeed great philosophy, etc. I did not mean to suggest otherwise. The key to my argument in yesterday's post is Marcuse's phrase "reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form." The seeming effortlessness with which the great artist [or philosopher or political economist or anthropologist or sociologist, for that matter] surmounts the formal constraints of his or her undertaking to produce something of great beauty, while at the same time completely conforming to those constraints, is a model, an instance, a paradigm [in the correct sense of that much misused word] of the infantile desire for instantaneous and effortless gratification that lies repressed but never forgotten in each of us. Perhaps I am relying too heavily on my own experience, but I have no other guide. When Bach composes a perfect fugue that seems to flow free-form from his infinite imagination; when Matisse, with a handful of lines conjures with such ease the face of a young woman; when Kant extracts the validity of the Causal maxim from the elementary unity of subjective consciousness -- it takes my breath away. It may take me years to reach the point at which I can appreciate the fugue, the face, the philosophical argument, but once I do, it is as though I have, by a gift of grace, been vouchsafed a vision of omnipotence. And in that moment, I can, fleetingly, imagine liberation.
Well, off to South Africa.
Having ventured into depth psychology and other treacherous realms in search of a defense of the Humanities, I shall now return to the quotidian struggle for jobs and paychecks. Today, I wish to talk for a bit about what is happening to Humanities departments in universities. My comments will be anecdotal, and restricted by and large to this country, simply because of the limitations of my knowledge and experience. I invite my readers from other countries to tell us what is happening there.
The assault on the Humanities is almost entirely budgetary. Wealthy schools [particularly, in America, well-endowed private colleges and universities] are content to leave their Humanities departments in place, and even to underwrite their expansion and multiplication. But the budget crises that periodically afflict public institutions seem almost always to take the heaviest toll on the Humanities. The experimental sciences have for many decades now relied on government and corporate funding for most of their research, and a combination of capitalist self-interest and national defense anxiety has sufficed to keep their money pouring in.
Many of the readers of this blog will understand quite fully how all of this works, but for those of you who do not hold faculty positions at tertiary institutions, permit me a few words of explanation. A grant proposal emanating from a university-based research scientist routinely includes money for research assistants, which is to say doctoral students, who will form part of the team working in the "Principal Investigator's" laboratory. Science these days is virtually always carried on by teams, in sharp contrast to the research of Humanist scholars. [Compare the publications of the two groups. The science papers always have multiple authors, with the grant-getter's name appearing first. Only rarely do humanists publish jointly.] The grant proposal also routinely includes money for phones, travel, "research materials," and other expenses that Humanists rely on their Deans to provide.
In addition -- and this is profoundly important in the finances of a university -- funders such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes for Health permit grant applicants to include a very large overhead allowance -- a standard percentage of the dollar amount of the grant application -- ostensibly to compensate the home institution for the expenses incurred by hosting the research team. At most universities, this overhead, which can be as much as 40% added onto the total grant, is then divided up, by a standard formula, among the Principal Investigator [PI], the home department, the Dean of the Science Faculty, and the Provost or central office. The money going to the PI and to the home department funds graduate students, travel, phones, equipment, and all the other amenities of academic life.
In return for this largesse, as I have already noted, the grant applicants must search the existing databases of funders for money available to underwrite the research they wish to carry out, while creatively shaping their research proposals to fit the announced priorities of the funders. If there is money to fund a search for a vaccine for AIDS, but little or no money to fund a study of previously undiscovered flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest, then the challenge is to persuade funders that potential breakthroughs in AIDS vaccine development lie waiting in the canopy of the Amazon jungles. A mathematician interested in the topology of connected tree-structures will shape her proposal so that it appears to promise a solution to traffic jams in big cities. And so forth.
Research scientists will tell you that they spend a great deal of their time writing grant proposals, and departments in the sciences weigh a candidate's success in securing grants very heavily when making tenure and promotion decisions.
By and large, humanists know nothing of this world of external funding, and many of them resist as a matter of principal shaping their research to fit the funding priorities of foundations, corporations, and government agencies. There is much less money available for humanistic research, and virtually none for teaching in the humanities. Over time, a class structure has evolved in the American academic world. Science doctoral students are routinely fully funded; doctoral students in the Humanities scrounge for funding, making do with partial teaching assistantships, back-breaking assignments in Freshman Composition, and jobs in fast food emporia. Science departments have travel budgets, research budgets, conference budgets, travel budgets, and multiple phone lines. Humanities Departments pay by the sheet for Xeroxing.
During the Golden Age of American higher education -- the 60's, 70's, and 80's of the last century, which is to say during a time coterminous with my own career -- the number and size of tertiary institutions expanded rapidly. First in response to the demand from returning World War II GI's funded by the GI Bill, then as a National Security response to the Cold War and the Soviet Union's early successes in space exploration. money poured into higher education. State Colleges were jumped up to campuses of the State University, and Community Colleges promoted to State College branches, all needing Humanities Departments to justify their new status. The available jobs so far exceeded the supply of scholars holding doctorates in the Humanities that graduate students were being offered full time positions even before having passed their qualifying exams. Thanks to the multiplication of campuses and money from the National Defense Education Act, some of which inevitably trickled down into university library budgets, publishers found that they could at least break even on virtually any academic title they published. A scholar in the Humanities willing and able to crank out manuscripts could get contracts and advances simply on the basis of an idea and a one page rationale. "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven."
Well, Thermidor comes to all revolutions, and pretty soon the money started to dry up. At first expansion stopped. Then travel money and research assistance disappeared. Funding for graduate students dwindled, and Deans desperate to avoid firing faculty removed professorial phone lines. These cheese parings served for a while, but as we entered the new millennium, serious cuts replaced these trimmings. Poorly paid part time faculty began to replace tenure track faculty, and when that was not enough, Universities required by law to declare "financial exigency" before contemplating the firing of tenured faculty ventured into that previously forbidden territory. Doctoral programs were summarily terminated as "too expensive," and teaching loads were raised.
One of the most bizarre of the many budget cutting moves has been the merging into one of previously distinct departments of language and literature. Apparently, the corporate managers who have found soft berths for themselves as university chancellors look at the array of language departments in the Humanities faculties -- Germanic Languages and Literature, Classical Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Spanish and Portuguese, and all the rest -- and decide that since they aren't English, they all belong together. This maneuver always reminds me of one of my favorite passages in the novels of Mark Twain, the famous argument between Huck and Jim about whether the Duke and the Dauphin really speak something called French. Here it is, verbatim, from Chapter 14 of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I hope you will not mind my quoting the entire passage. Huck is narrating, of course:
"I told about Louis Sixteenth that got his head cut off in France long time ago; and about his little boy the dolphin, that would a been a king, but they took and shut him up in jail, and some say he died there.
"Po' little chap."
"But some says he got out and got away, and come to America."
"Dat's good! But he'll be pooty lonesome—dey ain' no kings here, is dey, Huck?"
"Den he cain't git no situation. What he gwyne to do?"
"Well, I don't know. Some of them gets on the police, and some of them learns people how to talk French."
"Why, Huck, doan' de French people talk de same way we does?"
"NO, Jim; you couldn't understand a word they said—not a single word."
"Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?"
"I don't know; but it's so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. S'pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy—what would you think?"
"I wouldn' think nuff'n; I'd take en bust him over de head—dat is, if he warn't white. I wouldn't 'low no nigger to call me dat."
"Shucks, it ain't calling you anything. It's only saying, do you know how to talk French?"
"Well, den, why couldn't he SAY it?"
"Why, he IS a-saying it. That's a Frenchman's WAY of saying it."
"Well, it's a blame ridicklous way, en I doan' want to hear no mo' 'bout it. Dey ain' no sense in it."
"Looky here, Jim; does a cat talk like we do?"
"No, a cat don't."
"Well, does a cow?"
"No, a cow don't, nuther."
"Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?"
"No, dey don't."
"It's natural and right for 'em to talk different from each other, ain't it?"
"And ain't it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from US?"
"Why, mos' sholy it is."
"Well, then, why ain't it natural and right for a FRENCHMAN to talk different from us? You answer me that."
"Is a cat a man, Huck?"
"Well, den, dey ain't no sense in a cat talkin' like a man. Is a cow a man?—er is a cow a cat?"
"No, she ain't either of them."
"Well, den, she ain't got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of 'em. Is a Frenchman a man?"
"WELL, den! Dad blame it, why doan' he TALK like a man? You answer me DAT!"
I see it warn't no use wasting words—you can't learn a nigger to argue. So I quit."
I think I will close today's post on that triumphant note.
Thursday, March 10, 2011
I am absolutely delighted that you read and enjoyed the book I wrote about my Socialist grandfather and grandmother. When I wrote it [and the companion volume about my parents, Walter and Lotte], I knew they would never be published, but I hoped that they would serve to keep alive the memory of some remarkable people for future generations of the extended Wolff family. It seems that in some small way that has happened. How marvelous.
If we count the book I wrote in 1962 about the ideological uses of Game Theory by nuclear war theorists, and the two books about my family, and my enormous autobiography, and my book length tutorial on The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy, there are now five unpublished books sitting on my bookshelves. After I pass on, which I trust will not be for some while yet, I shall leave it to my sons to decide what to do with that great mass of pages.
At any rate, Lisa, welcome to the blog.
What can we say of these three defenses of liberal education: as the stigmata of the upper classes, as the royal road to upward mobility, and as the entree into the Great Conversation? For the defense of liberal education as the distinguishing mark of aristocracy, I have nothing but contempt. If all this to-ing and fro-ing, all these reading assignments, term essays, multiple-choice examinations, and curriculum revisions have no further point than to put the latest polish on those born to, or headed for, the upper reaches of society, then I for one shall turn my attention to more honest labor, like the cleaning out of sewers. As for the second rationale for liberal education, as an instrument of upward mobility, I have no objection to ambition, and given the American pyramid of wealth and income, whose shape, incidentally, has remained essentially unchanged in at least eighty years, save to become even steeper, it is perfectly sensible for those lower down to attempt to climb to a more comfortable and secure position. But unfortunately for those of us whose task it is to administer the requisite doses of liberal education, there is an entirely accidental relationship between the content of that education and its function as a leg up for shirts who would be suits. Entry to the privileged positions in society could as easily be determined by one's ability to write a poem or practice calligraphy, as in Mandarin China.
As for the third defense of liberal education as admission to the Great Conversation, you will no doubt have discerned that I am more than half in love with it. I have spent my life listening to, and even on occasion contributing a few words to, that great conversation. If all the injustices of this world had been rectified, if all the suffering had been alleviated, if, in the words of Isaiah, every valley had been exalted, every mountain and hill made low, if the crooked had been made straight, and the rough places plain, then I could justify to myself and to others a life spent initiating young men and women into the Great Conversation, for there is no denying that it is wonderful talk.
But there is an even deeper, more compelling justification for liberal education that can reassure and strengthen those of us who have devoted our lives to it. The true rationale for liberal education, in my considered and passionate judgment, is our society's desperate need for a reservoir of negative thought -- and for some protected place in which young men and women can explore what my sons, some years ago, would have called the dark side of the force. In these remarks, as in much that I have done, I draw for insight and inspiration on the work of my old friend and co-author, Herbert Marcuse.
I take as my texts two of Marcuse's most profound and provocative phrases: "surplus repression," which makes its appearance in his early work, EROS AND CIVILIZATION, and "repressive desublimation," from his best known book, ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN. By an explication of the notion of surplus repression, and a close reading of a single paragraph from the chapter on repressive desublimation, I can, I think, lay before you a deeper justification of liberal education that will explain both how it plays a central role in the critique and reformation of society, and why it is so appropriately undertaken at that moment in late adolescence and early adulthood which we in the United States identify as the undergraduate years.
Marcuse, who as a member of the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, participated in the great early twentieth century attempt to fuse the central insights of Marx and Freud, begins EROS AND CIVILIZATION by accepting the pessimistic thesis of Freud's CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS, that some measure of psychic repression is the necessary precondition for the organized social existence of humanity.
The new-born infant does not possess a coherent rational self or ego with which to negotiate its relationship to the external world. Indeed, it does not yet so much as possess a conception of itself in contradistinction to its surroundings. What we think of as the ordinary thought-processes of reality orientation - the distinction of self and other, the recognition of relations of space, time, and causality, the distinction between desire and satisfaction, wish and actuality - are in fact secondary accomplishments, painfully acquired in the wake of initial and continuing frustrations. Each of the stages of what we consider normal childhood development has a profoundly ambivalent significance for the child, at one and the same time a source of power, satisfaction, and self-esteem, and a suffering of frustration, pain, and rage.
One example can perhaps stand for the entire years-long process. Little babies are at first unable to express their desires, of course, save by the inefficient method of crying. Still, a fortunate baby will succeed in getting its parent's attention by crying, and the parent will become hyper-sensitively attuned to those slight variations in the cry which indicate whether it is hunger, fatigue, colic, or teething that is the cause. Eventually, the baby learns to sit up in a high chair and eat with its hands or a spoon, and [we may suppose] it learns as well that when it waves its hands and makes a demanding noise, it gets a cookie. The baby, note, will be deeply ambivalent about this learned behavior, for what the baby wants [or so Freud persuasively tells us] is to have its hunger, or its desire for a cookie, instantaneously gratified, without even the temporary frustration of waiting until the parent decodes the cry and responds. But though this state of affairs has come about at the cost of frustration and pain, it is also a source of power and gratification. By learning how to command its parent's response, the baby can get the cookie. What is more, the parent is likely to respond with manifest pleasure to the baby's ability to sit up and communicate its wants.
One day, something inexplicable, terrible, frustrating, painful happens. The baby makes its demanding noise, with the cookie in full view just outside its reach, and the parent, instead of immediately handing it over, as has happened every day for as long as the baby can remember, now picks up the cookie, holds it tantalizingly before the baby, and says in what can only be construed as a deliberately sadistic voice, "Can you say 'cookie'?" Well, all of us know the rest of this story, for all of us have lived through it. The acquisition of language, the mastery of one's bowels, the control of one's temper - all of the stages in development that make one an adult human being who is recognizably a member of a society - all have a negative side, a side associated with shame, rage, pain, frustration, resentment, a backside, as we learn to think of it, as well as a positive side associated with praise, self-esteem, public reward, power, satisfaction - a front, which, as our language very nicely suggests, is both an officially good side and also a pretense, a fake.
By and large, we do not forget the frustration, the pain, the rage. We repress it, drive it out of consciousness, deny it, put it behind us, as we like to say. But, like our own backsides, and the feces which issue from them, they remain, and exercise a secret, shameful attraction for us.
This brief reminder of our common heritage makes it clear that the repression of "unacceptable" wishes - as Freud so quaintly and aptly labeled them in his earlier writings - is an essential precondition for our development of the ability to interact effectively with the world, and with one another. Mastery of our own bodies, mastery of language, the psychic ability, and willingness, to defer gratification long enough to perform necessary work, the ability to control destructive, and self-destructive, rages or desires - civilization, society, culture, survival depend upon them. But necessary though they are, they are painful; throughout our lives, we carry, repressed, the delicious, illicit fantasies of total, immediate, uncompromised gratification, of instantaneous, magical fulfillment, of the permission to indulge the desires that have been stigmatized as negative.
With great flair, Marcuse combines Freud's thesis, of the necessity of some repression for the existence of human civilization, with the central concept of Marx's political economy - surplus value. According to Marx, it is the labor required for the production of commodities that regulates their exchange in a capitalist market. Inasmuch as workers sell their own capacity for labor in the market like a commodity, through the wage bargain, competition eventually sets its price - the wage - at a level equal to the amount of labor required to produce that capacity, which is to say the amount of labor required to produce the workers' food, clothing, and shelter. This labor, Marx says, can be called "necessary labor," for in any economic system whatever, it must be performed if the workers are to be able to remain alive and continue their labors. But, Marx argues, the workers are forced, by the conditions of the labor market, to work more hours than is embodied in their consumption goods, and the extra labor time, through the processes of market exchange, is transmuted into surplus exchange value. That surplus value, Marx demonstrates, is the source of the profits, interest, and rents that the propertied classes appropriate. In sum, Marx asserts, capitalism rests upon the capitalist appropriation of surplus value, or, more succinctly, upon exploitation.
Marcuse transfers these concepts of necessary and surplus labor to the sphere of the psyche, and rechristens them "necessary and surplus repression." Just as there is a certain quantum of necessary labor that must be performed in any society, so there is a certain amount of necessary repression, as we have seen, that is the precondition of human existence as such. But in some societies, just as workers are forced to perform more than merely necessary labor, its fruits being appropriated by a ruling class, so in those same societies, and most particularly in capitalist society, workers, and indeed others as well, have inflicted upon them extra, or surplus, repression, whose function is not to make human society in general possible, but rather to serve and support the particular exploitative, unjust, repressive economic and political institutions and policies of the ruling classes.
Over and above the deferral of gratification demanded by the exigencies of nature and human intercourse, the capitalist workplace demands an additional level of work discipline, of self-denial, of obedience, of surplus repression. Marcuse notes, by way of rough proof, the extraordinary fact that despite the doubling, trebling, quadrupling of worker productivity achieved by technological advance, the average work week has shortened only slightly, if at all, in the past three-quarters of a century.
In ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, in what has always seemed to me one of the truly inspired texts of twentieth century social theory, Marcuse deploys this insight to explain the structure and conditions of social protest, and the subjective psychological sources of the energy that fuels social change. The argument goes like this: The energy on which we draw for work, for art, and for politics, as well as for sex, is the fund of originally undifferentiated libidinal energy with which we are born, and which we attach to various objects through the psychic processes of sublimation, displacement, and cathexis. The gratifications we obtain are, as Freud poignantly shows us, always somewhat diminished, compromised, shadowed by the unavoidable adjustments to reality. The pleasures of useful, fruitful, unalienated labor, the satisfactions of artistic creation, even the sensuous delights of sexual intercourse, necessarily fall short of what is longed for in our repressed fantasies. To give a single, elementary example: all of us who write books of philosophy will acknowledge, I imagine, that in our most secret dreams, we lust after a review that begins something like this: "Not since Plato wrote THE REPUBLIC has a work of such power and brilliance burst upon the scene" - after which, we become instantaneously rich, young, thin, and flooded with absolutely risk-free offers of polymorphic sexual satisfaction. What actually happens, if we are fortunate, is that we are moderately favorably reviewed, by someone with his or her own fantasies of instant gratification, and have the genuine, but subdued pleasure, in years to come, of stumbling on references to our production, or of encounters with a praising reader.
Now, Marcuse suggests, there is real surplus psychic repression inflicted on all of us in our society, most particularly on those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, and the established, institutionalized structures of political and economic repression being what they are, it takes an enormous, painful, dangerous mobilization of psychic energy to fight those structures and reduce the quantum of surplus repression. But since the dangers of revolt and resistance are so great, and most especially because the repression has been internalized in each of us in the form of an unnecessarily punitive set of self-inflicted restraints, a reasoned, measured, realistic call for incremental improvements is unlikely to elicit the burst of revolutionary energy needed for any change at all. "Workers of the world, unite! You have a modest reduction in surplus repression to win!" is not a slogan calculated to bring suffering men and women into the streets.
What in fact happens, Marcuse suggests, is that revolutionary change is energized by the utopian, siren call of liberation, which, whatever the language in which it is couched, is experienced subjectively as a promise of the gratification of those infantile fantasies of instantaneous, magical, total gratification which lurk within us all. Workers' liberation, Black liberation, Women's liberation, Gay liberation - all appeal, necessarily, meretriciously, and yet productively, to these universal repressed fantasies. Only the tapping of such powerful wellsprings of psychic energy can move us to the heroic feats required for even modest reductions in surplus repression.
The upshot of every revolution is therefore disappointment, for no matter how successful the revolution, it cannot, in the nature of things, liberate us from necessary repression. After the victory celebrations, we must still go to work, use the toilet, submit ourselves to some code or other of dress, of speech, of sexual conduct. Despite the inevitable and repeated disappointments, we must keep alive the fantasies, and attach them to our political aspirations, for they are the essential motor of real world social, economic, and political progress.
In this project, the great works of art, literature, philosophy and music of our cultural tradition play an essential, and rather surprising, role. Regardless of their manifest content and apparent purpose, these works, which we customarily consider the appropriate content of a liberal education, play a continuingly subversive role. They keep alive, in powerful and covert ways, the fantasies of gratification, the promise of happiness, the anger at necessary repression, on which radical political action feeds.
To explain somewhat how even the most seemingly abstract works of art perform this function, let me read to you a single paragraph from Marcuse's discussion, and then explicate it by reference to a Bach fugue. Here is the passage:
"The tension between the actual and the possible is transfigured into an insoluble conflict, in which reconciliation is by grace of the oeuvre as form: beauty as the "promesse de bonheur." In the form of the oeuvre, the actual circumstances are placed in another dimension where the given reality shows itself as that which it is. Thus it tells the truth about itself; its language ceases to be that of deception, ignorance, and submission. Fiction calls the facts by their name and their reign collapses; fiction subverts everyday experience and shows it to be mutilated and false. But art has this magic power only as the power of negation. It can speak its own language only as long as the images are alive which refuse and refute the established order." [ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN, pp. 61-62]
Consider a Bach fugue, which can stand, in our analysis, for any work of art or literature that submits itself, as all true art must, to some canon of formal constraint. We could as well consider a sonnet, a portrait, a statue, or indeed a Platonic dialogue. The rules governing the composition of a fugue are extremely strict. They constitute, psychologically speaking, a repression of the composer's instinctual, creative energies. In the hands of a novice, the fugue-form is a strait-jacket, painfully forcing one to adjust one's musical line in unnatural ways. It is, speaking at the very deepest psychological level, the equivalent of being required to use the toilet, or to say "cookie" before being fed. But in the hands of Bach, all is transformed. Bach's fugues seem effortless. They magically transcend the constraints of the form, all the while rigidly conforming to them.
The result is sheer, sensuous beauty which is, at one and the same time, liberated from the constraints of form and completely consonant with those constraints. The fugue thus holds out, magically, the promise of total satisfaction, the "promesse de bonheur," that is to be found in the unconscious of each of us. In the same fashion, a Dickinson poem, a Rodin sculpture, a Platonic dialogue, a van Gogh still life reawaken in us the fantasy of perfect, effortless gratification. These works of art and literature remind us of the possibility that there is a life better than the network of compromises in which we are enmeshed, a second dimension to existence in which freedom replaces necessity, happiness replaces suffering.
The great works of humanistic writing, be they philosophy, history, theology, or criticism, accomplish the same end. The pure, rational arguments of Spinoza's ETHICS recall for us the image of a world in which reason is an instrument of liberation, not of domination. The sheer formal beauty of a mathematical proof, the effortless derivation of the most powerful conclusions from apparently innocent premises, holds out to us the hope of instantaneous ecstasy.
In all seriousness, I suggest to you that this is the deepest justification for keeping alive the great tradition of liberal arts and letters in our colleges and universities. Not as a patina for modern aristocrats, not as an instrument of upward mobility, not even as an introduction to the Great Conversation, but as a way of putting young men and women in touch with their repressed fantasies of gratification, in such a fashion as to awaken in them the hope, the dream, the unquenchable thirst for liberation from which social progress must come.
By way of final illustration, I should like to close with a true story. More than forty years ago, I taught for a year as a visiting professor at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. One semester I was assigned an Introduction to Philosophy that met, thanks to the peculiar schedule pattern then in use at Rutgers, on Monday mornings at 8:00 a.m. and Thursday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. For the only time in my teaching career, I assigned a casebook - a collection of readings from the great philosophers - instead of a group of complete original works, and each Monday morning and Thursday afternoon, I soldiered away, "covering" the material, as we delicately put it in the trade.
Some time in the late Fall, I got to Hume, who was represented by a few well-chosen pages from Part iii of Book One of the TREATISE - which, as some of you will know, is the locus for his famous sceptical critique of causal reasoning. I was dead bored with the material, with the course, and with myself by this time, and I can confidently assure you that I was not doing a superlative job of teaching. I had studied Hume first as a Freshman, then as a Sophomore, then while writing my doctoral dissertation, and innumerable times since. I was so thoroughly inoculated against the force of his arguments that I could scarcely recall a time when I had found them even mildly provocative.
One day, after class, a young man came up to talk to me, very agitated. He had been troubled by Hume's arguments he said - I found this rather astonishing, as you can imagine - and had gone to talk things over with his priest. The priest, whose seminary training had not prepared him for this sort of problem from his parishioners, referred him to the Office of Information of the Diocese. The young man called the Diocese, and was referred to a Monsignor, who, after listening to his concerns, said abruptly, "Well, some people think that. But we don't," and hung up the phone. What should he do?, the student wanted to know.
Let me tell you, I was humbled by the episode. Despite my best efforts to deaden the impact of the text, and the utterly unpromising conditions of an 8:00 a.m. introductory class, David Hume had reached his hand across two centuries, seized that young man by the scruff of the neck, and given him a shaking that bid fair to liberate him from a lifetime of unthinking subservience to received authority.
That is what a liberal education can accomplished, at its best, and that is why, in every college and university, a protected sanctuary must be preserved for undergraduate liberal education.