September 24, 2014

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What Are the Humanities For?

lareviewofbooks.org | Article Link | by Patrícia Vieira

Debates about the “future of the humanities” frequently revolve around the suspicion that the humanities might not have one. Yet despite the direness of this anxiety — an anxiety especially personal for every academic worried about professional choices or mortgage payments — conversations on the topic are often dull, long-faced affairs. Every professor has sat through one or another of these depressing discussions. The conversation proceeds according to a familiar set of pieces: there are passionate apologias of work in philosophy, literature, history, and the arts; veiled criticism of the anti-intellectualism of higher education administrators and society at large; and vague pledges to do more interdisciplinary research and extend a fraternal hand to the social and natural sciences, who remain largely unperturbed by this plight. The whole thing wraps up with the reassuring conviction that, if the humanities go down, they will do so in style (we study the arts, after all), and that truth is on our side, all folded in a fair dosage of indulgent self-pity.

Caricature aside, reflections on the role of the humanities in education and in society have recently entered a predominantly reactive, plaintive mode. This is hardly surprising, given the alarming decrease in funding for these fields, not only in the US but also in Europe. As a result, a number of departments have either been closed down or drastically reduced in size. SUNY Albany made headlines in 2010 when it announced that it was closing its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater programs. Since then, many other institutions have followed suit. Just last May, the University of Saskatchewan in Canada received heavy criticism for firing one of its deans, Professor Robert Buckingham, because he publicly criticized the institution’s TransformUS strategy. Under this plan, the university intends to amalgamate its departments of Philosophy, Modern Languages, Religion and Culture, and Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies in order to cut costs.

University administrators blame the 2008 financial crisis, decreased public funding for higher education, and the ensuing need to control rampant university expenses for such cuts and consolidation, but the problem with the humanities — although intensified by the economic downturn — could already be felt long before. Underfunding followed shrinking enrollments as students migrated to other degrees.

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September 18, 2014

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The Disruption Machine

newyorker.com | Article Link | by Jill Lepore

In the last years of the nineteen-eighties, I worked not at startups but at what might be called finish-downs. Tech companies that were dying would hire temps—college students and new graduates—to do what little was left of the work of the employees they’d laid off. This was in Cambridge, near M.I.T. I’d type users’ manuals, save them onto 5.25-inch floppy disks, and send them to a line printer that yammered like a set of prank-shop chatter teeth, but, by the time the last perforated page coiled out of it, the equipment whose functions those manuals explained had been discontinued. We’d work a month here, a week there. There wasn’t much to do. Mainly, we sat at our desks and wrote wishy-washy poems on keyboards manufactured by Digital Equipment Corporation, left one another sly messages on pink While You Were Out sticky notes, swapped paperback novels—Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Gabriel García Márquez, that kind of thing—and, during lunch hour, had assignations in empty, unlocked offices. At Polaroid, I once found a Bantam Books edition of “Steppenwolf” in a clogged sink in an employees’ bathroom, floating like a raft. “In his heart he was not a man, but a wolf of the steppes,” it said on the bloated cover. The rest was unreadable.

Not long after that, I got a better assignment: answering the phone for Michael Porter, a professor at the Harvard Business School. I was an assistant to his assistant. In 1985, Porter had published a book called “Competitive Advantage,” in which he elaborated on the three strategies—cost leadership, differentiation, and focus—that he’d described in his 1980 book, “Competitive Strategy.” I almost never saw Porter, and, when I did, he was dashing, affably, out the door, suitcase in hand. My job was to field inquiries from companies that wanted to book him for speaking engagements. “The Competitive Advantage of Nations” appeared in 1990. Porter’s ideas about business strategy reached executives all over the world.

Porter was interested in how companies succeed. The scholar who in some respects became his successor, Clayton M. Christensen, entered a doctoral program at the Harvard Business School in 1989 and joined the faculty in 1992. Christensen was interested in why companies fail. In his 1997 book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” he argued that, very often, it isn’t because their executives made bad decisions but because they made good decisions, the same kind of good decisions that had made those companies successful for decades. (The “innovator’s dilemma” is that “doing the right thing is the wrong thing.”)

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September 9, 2014

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Reading: The Struggle

nybooks.com | Article Link | by Tim Parks

The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.

What I’m talking about is the state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction—for immersing oneself in it and then coming back and back to it on numerous occasions over what could be days, weeks, or months, each time picking up the threads of the story or stories, the patterning of internal reference, the positioning of the work within the context of other novels and indeed the larger world.

Every reader will have his or her own sense of how reading conditions have changed, but here is my own experience. Arriving in the small village of Quinzano, just outside Verona, Italy, thirty-three years ago, aged twenty-six, leaving friends and family behind in the UK, unpublished and unemployed, always anxious to know how the next London publisher would respond to the work I was writing, I was constantly eager for news of one kind or another.

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September 2, 2014

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John Searle: The Philosopher in the World

nybooks.com | Article Link | by Tim Crane

On May 22, the philosopher and longtime New York Review contributor John Searle gave a public lecture at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) on “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology.” During Searle’s visit, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy Tim Crane interviewed him about his work and the state of philosophy today. The following is drawn from their conversation.

Tim Crane: In our discussion earlier today, you talked about questions of rights and freedom. This is a bit of a new departure for you, isn’t it?

John Searle: I have never written much about political rights and political power. But if you have a theory of social ontology it ought to have implications in other areas of social philosophy concerning other issues. Social ontology is a beautiful subject by the way. We all live with money and private property, and universities, and governments, and summer vacations: What’s their ontology? How do they exist? How can there be an objective fact that this piece of paper is money, but it’s only money in virtue of our subjective opinions? That’s a big question I have tried to answer. And I think my theory of social ontology has important implications for political philosophy. One is on the notion of human rights, universal human rights.

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August 26, 2014

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Known Unknowns of the Class War

aaww.org | Article Link | by Naeem Mohaiemen

When you turn to page 186 of In the Light of What We Know, you encounter an illustration. The novel’s two main characters have by this point discussed many things, and readers may have already been craving visual aids. But this is the first time the text is interrupted by a diagram. You sense, therefore, the arrival of a crucial digression.

The illustration is of a diagonal line that runs from the top left corner of the diagram to the bottom right, interrupted mid-way by a vertical rectangle. On the other side of the rectangle, two diagonals slope downward in the same direction as the first, one atop the other. If you are not particular about the condition of your books (as I am not), you will have the urge to fold the page to better work out the optical illusion. It appears as if the descending diagonal line continues, after interruption, along the upper diagonal on the right. But folding would reveal the opposite—that it is actually the second, lower diagonal that it is joined with.

Named “Poggendorff’s illusion,” after the nineteenth-century German physicist Johann Poggendorff who discovered it in a drawing, the illusion is something Zafar, the novel’s British-Bangladeshi protagonist, starts explaining to our unnamed narrator. But as with many other incomplete yet meticulously plotted diversions within Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, Zafar does not finish the story. It is up to the narrator to fill in the gaps, after “consulting pages on the Internet,” as one of the novel’s many Infinite Jest-like footnotes inform us.

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August 21, 2014

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Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

edrants.com | Article Link | by Edward Champion

Richard Wright was 32 when he published Native Son. Dinaw Mengestu was 26 when he published All the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Edwidge Danticat had two novels and a short story collection under her belt before she was 30. James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain when he was 29. Publishing fiction was neither an act of vanity nor a declaration of entitlement for these formidably talented figures. Their novels were all serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul, demanding that readers pay attention and alter their reality by a bristling strand. Their stories burned from their typewriters and computers as naturally as kindling on an uncontainable fire.

Yet an insufferable new group of mediocre writers and book boosters, armed with a 24/7 presence on social media, has emerged not only to debase literature, but to drive out vibrant, risk-taking literary lights with the advocation of childish, anglophonic, and apolitical narratives that read more like the old Sassy articles once devoured by preening teens. (Indeed, the obsession with nostalgia and adolescent mimicry is so commiserable that this group’s indefatigable flight from adulthood at such a late age is quite embarrassing when compared against the commendable industry of RookieMag‘s teen prodigy Tavi Gevinson.) To some degree, this is an offshoot of what Tom Whyman has smartly identified as “cupcake fascism,” whereby embracing empty bourgeois comfort supplants even the most half-hearted engagement.

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August 11, 2014

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In the Near Future, Only Very Wealthy Colleges Will Have English Departments

newrepublic.com | Article Link | by James Pulizzi

Within a few decades, contemporary literature departments (e.g., English) will be largely extinct—they’ll be as large and vibrant as Classics departments are today, which is to say, not very active at all. Only wealthy institutions will be able to afford the luxury of faculty devoted to studying written and printed text. Communications, rhetoric/composition, and media studies will take English’s place. The change isn’t necessarily an evil to be decried but simply reflects how most people now generate and read narratives and text—they do it on digitally based multimedia platforms.

Why should college students read narrative prose when they get their fill of stories from television, cinema, and interactive video games? Narratives currently live in many different media, and there should be nothing wrong with academics considering them alongside print narratives. Defenders of the traditional curriculum mostly believe students need to read these printed texts if they are to be truly educated, cultured members of our society. That’s the gist of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (1987) and many an essay from right- and left-leaning critics alike, including Adam Kirsch’s recent essay “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments.”

The so-called culture war that raged around Bloom’s book through the 1990s amid concern that including the disenfranchised’s voices would dilute (white, European) culture has largely passed, and yet the anxiety about English and the humanities in general lingers.

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July 1, 2014

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The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses

telegraph.co.uk | Article Link | by An Wilson

Can there ever have been a book with a more dramatic publishing history than James Joyce’s Ulysses – written in abject poverty and over a period of seven years during and just after the First World War; printed in Paris (at first, just two copies); vilified as obscene; burnt and impounded at British and American docks; and smuggled like forbidden hooch? (Amusing to read here of Ernest Hemingway’s part in the smuggling.)

Kevin Birmingham has a deep love of the novel, and knows everything about Joyce. His learned book is a gripping page-turner. Ulysses might have been indecent – if graphic language and an obsession with lavatorial and sexual functions is rightly so described. But, whether or not the book is indecent, the sheer decency of its early defenders will be what strikes the reader of this story.

There was demure English heiress Miss Weaver – who published early extracts from the book in an avant-garde journal, The Egoist, and gave Joyce £2,000 – a sum that provided him with an income of £350 (the equivalent today of £11,000). There were Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap in New York, whose Little Review published the first half of the novel in episodic pamphlets – until the notorious “Circe” episode was impounded by the authorities. There was the famous Sylvia Beach, proprietress of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, who published the first edition of Ulysses in book form. There was Arnold Bennett, a novelist of such a different complexion from Joyce’s, who could see, in an early review, that Joyce was “dazzlingly original. If he does not see life whole he sees it piercingly”.

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June 18, 2014

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Philosophy is a Bunch of Empty Ideas: Interview with Peter Unger

3quarksdaily.com | Article Link | by Grace Boey

Philosophy: you either get it or you don't. The field has its passionate defenders, but according to its critics, philosophy is irrelevant, unproductive, and right at the height of the ivory towers. And now, the philosophy-bashing camp can count a proud defector from the other side: Peter Unger, Professor of Philosophy at New York University, has come out against the field in his latest book, Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy.

Unger has written extensively over the course of his career on various philosophical topics, and his best-known writings include Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism (1975) and Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence (1995). As a no-holds-barred critique of mainstream analytic philosophy, Empty Ideas is a continuation of Unger's signature provocative style.

As a former student of his, I spoke to Unger in late May about Empty Ideas, his thoughts on the value of philosophy, Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, David Lewis, and the difference between philosophy, crystal healing and self-help (the answer: nothing that important).

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May 30, 2014

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Buzzfeed’s founder used to write Marxist theory and it explains Buzzfeed perfectly

vox.com | Article Link | by Dylan Matthews

Buzzfeed has achieved an outrageous amount of success in recent years, reaching 130 million unique visitors last November (over four times as many as in November 2012). There are a lot of reasons for that but a major one is the site's remarkable talent at relating to people. Many of the site's pieces work by letting readers revel in shared traits or experiences: "35 Signs You Went To A Liberal Arts College In The Early ’90s"; "19 Reasons We Are All Actually Every Single Disney Character"; "26 Struggles Only People With Small Bladders Will Understand." "Nobody wants to be a shill for your brand," former Buzzfeed chief creative officer Jeff Greenspan once told New York Magazine for a profile of the company's founder, Jonah Peretti. "But they are happy to share information and content that helps them promote their own identity."

So where did Peretti get that idea? Peretti's academic writings offer one clue. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz in 1996, Peretti published an article in the cultural theory journal Negations entitled "Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Contemporary Visual Culture and the Acceleration of Identity Formation/Dissolution." After the paper was mentioned in New York's Peretti profile, Critical-Theory.com's Eugene Wolters read through it, and found that it more or less lays out (and critiques) Buzzfeed's entire business model—a full decade before the company was founded. Read more...

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