Last Monday, somebody made a funny cartoon called “So, You Want to get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” that quickly went viral on YouTube and FaceBook. And the very next day someone else made a similar cartoon called “So You Want to get a Ph.D. in Political Science.” My buddies from graduate school especially appreciated the humor since most of us have somewhat recently suffered the slings and arrows of the infamously intimidating “job market,” and many are still searching for that treasured yet elusive tenure track job and at this very moment are anxiously sending out their applications. I want to do a quick reading of this rather bitter satirical video by putting it in its political context — the so-called “crisis in the humanities” — and attending to the different audiences who might be watching it. Here’s the video:
Some of my students might wonder if this video really reflects the secret inner thoughts of their professors whenever they are asked for a letter of recommendation…. No, not really. This is a classic case of satire through exaggeration that blends truth with untruth. So, the truth is that yes, the job market for humanities is very depressing and isn’t likely to improve much, that public universities face state-wide budget cuts, and that the reality of being a professor is very different from what many undergraduates imagine it to be. In fact, I have myself said exactly these things to so many students in my office on so many occasions that I eventually just wrote a summary of my “advice” in my blog [here] – and according to the nifty little calculating technology of my blog’s host WordPress, I know that this post is by far the most popular thing I have ever written, having been independently viewed more than two thousand times. The untruth of the video, of course, is that few professors actually think our students are misguided or “stupid” to want to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities or for having the very same beloved ideals that we had when we started down that path. And likewise most students are far more sophisticated than the one in this cartoon. Reality is not so horrific, and it’s a pretty sweet job I have, all things considered; obviously, it’s the exaggeration-for-effect that makes the video funny…. Duh, that’s obvious, so what?
Actually, the real point of the cartoon and what makes it funny to me is not at all what professors may or may not think about their students or about their own jobs. If we shift the target audience of this video from students to other professors and administrators, its meaning changes a bit. (And, if you’ll excuse my “theory teacher” moment, this is why most introductions to literary theory stress to English majors that they pay attention to context and audience, as Roland Barthes suggested in his famous “Death of the Author” essay, as Stanley Fish suggested in his famous book Is Their a Text in This Class?, and as countless other “reader response” and “new historicist” theorists have argued.) For professors and administrators today the real issue in this video is something the newspapers are calling the “crisis of the humanities.” For instance, see this NY Times op-ed by Stanley Fish from a few weeks ago.
So, in order to really appreciate what’s going on in this cartoon, let’s consider its political context. What precipitated the flurry of discussion in newspapers and the blog-o-sphere is exactly the event mentioned in the cartoon — the State University of New York at Albany’s decision to cut its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater departments. Now that’s some serious cutting, and a lot of already tenured professors will soon lose their jobs. You can read about that frightening decision [here]. It is, therefore, not surprising that this particular video was made at this particular moment in time, especially since many other colleges and universities across the country are also cutting back, albeit in less drastic measure. (Lucky for me, mine isn’t.)
Moreover, as the cartoon suggests, there is fear among academics that radical conservatives like the ranting Tea Party movement are out to screw us. This is not an entirely irrational fear considering that bills have actually been proposed in several state legislatures to control what professors are allowed to teach or say in class. See, for instance, [here]. In other words, if these bills passed and you happened to teach at a public university, the content of your class would be limited by the narrow agendas of state politicians. There was even talk (back in the scary post-9/11 days) of putting professors who didn’t support George Bush’s war in Iraq under surveillance by Homeland Security. Fortunately, none of these bills passed.
Unfortunately, the so-called “crisis of the humanities” is neither something new nor what I would call a crisis. You can see this American Scholar article from last year, this Inside HigherEd article from 2007, and Michael Bérubé published this book and Robert Scholes published this book about it way back in 1999. In fact, the Modern Language Association gathers data about the state of the job market and enrolments in English and language departments and put together this solid, data-driven analysis in the 2004 issue of its journal Profession.
So, what, in a nutshell is all the hullabaloo about? Why all the lamentations about the declining enrollment in humanities courses?
The blame game goes in all sorts of directions. Some blame our more materialistic culture (since the 1980s) that encourages students to choose more professionally oriented majors such as business-management and encourages university administrations to run their schools the way one runs a business. Others blame the professors themselves for not teaching the right things (or the politically right things.) According to that belief, it is precisely because English departments and other humanities departments got all “postmodern” and “deconstrucitvist” and French-ified that they began to decline. In other words, so the argument goes, because corrupt, leftist English professors began critically demystifying and deconstructing the great authorial genius of Shakespeare and Emerson and began to attend to the voices of women, African-Americans, Native Americans, etc., they signed their own death warrant. (At the very least, we “theory teachers” inspired radical conservatives to wage media campaigns against academics for not being patriotic or traditional enough.) Others focus attention in another direction and blame the military-industrial complex and the changing nature of the “research university” since the 1960s because most administrators understandably seek large grants and pools of money to fund research at their universities, and let’s face it, there’s a lot more money coming into schools to promote technology and business than there is coming in to promote arts and critical thinking.
Interestingly, the surprising discovery of the MLA study (linked above) is that what’s really causing declining enrolments in humanities might be none of these things. Rather it is the rise of new, interdisciplinary programs such as Communications, Peace Studies, Global Studies, Gender Studies, and Environmental Studies. The attraction of such interdisciplinary programs is perhaps somewhat obvious, even though the skills learned in them are pretty much the same skills one learns in any humanities department — how to think, do research, and write. Most “career services” centers tell their undergraduates that it really doesn’t matter what one majors in. What really matters (career counselors at my school have told me and my students on multiple occasions) is whether you are excited about what you are learning. Considering the findings of that study, maybe declining enrolments in humanities and other traditional departments such as political science are not such a crisis after all.
Nevertheless, I do think it is true that university administrators these days favor business, hard sciences, and what I would call the NGO-majors of environmental sciences, global studies, gender studies, and peace studies. (And interestingly, the NGO-majors came into existence in the early 1990s at exactly the same time when the world witnessed a significant increase in the number of global NGOs.) When universities create these programs and talk about them glowingly and excitedly to newspapers and on graduation day (in ways they rarely talk about traditional humanities)… well then yes, there’s a bit of truth to the viewpoint that universities ought to do more than they have been doing to support their humanities departments.
But all this still begs the two related questions of why and how universities ought to support the humanities. In his op-ed earlier this month, Stanley Fish argues that university administrators should admit that humanities isn’t profitable but should aggressively defend their worth to state legislatures. In response to Fish, The New Arts, Politics, Philosophy, Science blog argues that actually the humanities are not only profitable but are very important to the fiscal life of the university in terms of overall cost-benefit analysis. In other words, not only has Fish got some of his facts wrong, he has also bought into the neoliberal, Wall Street ideology that misinterprets economic data. They cite this AAUP article that demonstrates that the sciences may bring in more money from private corporations, but sciences are also more expensive to run. Dollar for dollar, humanities departments are cheaper to maintain and provide a range of important services to the whole university.
What is that service? Now here we get into the nitty-gritty of what we as humanities professors ought to be doing about this so-called crisis. Fish’s argument suggests that we ought to maintain the traditional academic departments in their traditional formulation. But as Michael Bérubé and Robert Scholes argued way back in the 1990s, English departments ought to shift from focusing only on traditional literature and expand their range to include other roles — for instance, roles valued by the whole university such as writing courses and critical thinking courses catered to environmental studies, global studies, business, etc. Bérubé and Scholes are arguing explicitly against the conservative tendency of English departments to retreat into traditional notions of literary study. They are also arguing against the notion that English departments are themselves to blame for their declining enrolments. And I agree with Bérubé and also agree that broadening the horizon of English departments to include both interdisciplinary courses and what are called “service courses” (e.g., freshmen composition and business writing) is probably one strategically intelligent way forward. In contrast to the departments of Russian and classics cut at SUNY Albany, English departments at most public universities are safe from such cuts precisely because they perform an essential service to the whole university.
But this can’t be the whole story. Fish is absolutely right to argue that this is really a political matter, not a curricular matter, and the traditional approaches to literary study (i.e., explaining to students why Shakespeare is as great as everyone says he is) are still important and valued by students as well as by the general public. (By the way, Fish responded to his critics and the AAUP article I mentioned [here].) At the end of the day, it’s wrong to think of this in either/or terms — either we do more interdisciplinary cultural studies or we do more traditional valuation of literature. What makes departments strong (in my opinion) is their diversity of personalities, subjects, approaches, etc., because departments need to attend to the diverse (and divergent) expectations our students, administrators, and general public all have for us.
So, given all that political context, now we can return to our reading of the cartoon. What makes the cartoon funny is the contradiction between what the student expects and believes and what the professor fears to be true. And this contradiction reflects the larger contradiction in public expectations for college English departments. The general public expects on the one hand exactly what the student desires — a life of the mind. But it also expects original, empirically grounded research by intellectually brilliant, hardworking individuals. And it also expects the curriculum to be practical and relevant to the “real world” (whatever that is). So, because public expectations for English departments (and other humanities departments) are so contradictory, the pressures on us faculty are indeed stressful. Unfortunately, what this video does is displace the anxieties faculty have about the future of their discipline and the security of their jobs onto the idealistic student. In other words, in this video, the naive student is made to symbolically (or metonymically) stand in for the naive public expectations, the contradictory demands put on faculty, and the worsening job security. In this sense, the video is a bit unfair to the student, and considering its multiple audiences (students, professors, and administrators), it does little to move us forward towards a serious reflection upon our collective strategy for addressing the so-called crisis. And by “collective,” I mean the collective of students, professors, and administrators who ought to all be allies in this task, not antagonists. On the other hand, if students and administrators are able to see the humor in the video and sympathize with the overworked, yet-to-be-tenured faculty who fears their job might at any moment be cut by overzealous politicians, then maybe the cartoon does do some useful cultural work.
p.s. And I suppose what my blog post is really saying is that for me the value of the humanities, and English in particular, is that it gives me the critical tools to perform the kind of complex reading of a simple cartoon. This is why I love being an English professor.
I just finished watching the third season of the popular show Dexter, the crime drama whose main character is a serial killer. It’s a very clever program and the writing is wonderful, but nevertheless the whole time I was watching I had the uncanny feeling that the writers were basically dramatizing the stuff they learned in their Freud 101 class in college. They wouldn’t be the first to use the story of a psychopathic killer to do so. The most classic example, of course, is Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho whose final scene is basically a monologue of simplified Freudian theory by a psychiatrist about Norman’s unconscious and his Oedipal relationship with his mother. And moreover, not surprisingly, I’m not the first to think about Dexter in terms of psychoanalysis as you can see in a couple of other blogs I found doing a quick google search [here and here] and also in three of the chapters of a recently published book of cultural analysis, Dexter: Investigating Cutting Edge Television (which I haven’t read yet but would if I were planning to write a real essay and not just this little blog.) So, in a funny way, I can’t help but suspect the show Dexter may give us more insight into the popular imagination of psychology — or how Hollywood writers tend to repeat Freudian ideas — than it gives us about real human psychology. Moreover, because of the way the show uses classic psychoanalytic ideas, it is very instructive for how narrative works.
Let me briefly explain by summarizing the story. The first season is basically about Dexter’s discovery of the repressed childhood trauma that (we are led to believe) produced not only his own psychopathic drive but also his brother’s. Although Freud himself actually argued against such a deterministic understanding of the unconscious, this rather simple understanding of psychology (the popularized version of Freudian theory) does provide a neat little narrative trick for television and movies — what keeps the audience interested in the story are the two questions of whether a character will discover the hidden truth and how he or she will react to this discovery. The standard narrative convention in the literary genre of “thrillers” for making the plot “thrilling” is to arrange the story so that the character must discover the truth and react appropriately just in time to save an innocent character. So, the Freudian models (whether or not they are accurate) are helpful for a writer in the creation of narrative drive. Moreover, the show very smartly provides us with a character double, Dexter’s brother. Both Dexter and his brother experienced the same trauma and both became serial killers, but Dexter had the benefit of a father figure and his brother didn’t. The narrative effect of this character double is that Dexter’s psychopathy appears reasonable, but reasonable only in contrast to the out-of-control psychopathy of his brother. In other words, if the show did not give us a lawless psychopath (Dexter’s brother), then Dexter would simply appear to us as he really is — crazy.
Seasons two and three also give us these doubles. In season two, the character doubles are Dexter’s girlfriend’s abusive ex-husband Paul and the pyromaniac Lila. In contrast to Dexter, both Paul and Lila are out-of-control individuals whose violent tendencies are anarchic, self-serving, and destructive of the social order. Likewise, in season three, the character doubles are the district attorney Miguel Prado (whom the show represents with all the stereotypical Cuban emotionalism) and the serial killer nick-named “the skinner.” In both season two and season three, Dexter consciously confronts these individuals as versions of himself because they start to do the very same things that he does. My favorite quote from the final episode of season two (and why I love the writing on this show): “It’s strange to have a creation out there, a deeply mutated version of yourself, running loose and screwing everything up. I wonder if this is how parents feel.”
In other words, these doubles are basically just like Dexter, except for one crucial difference that the show reminds us of constantly in every episode — Dexter’s code. In seasons one and two, Dexter has flashbacks to his father teaching him the code that will ensure both that he survives and that his killing somehow serves the public interest. In season three, this shifts from flashbacks to projections where Dexter imagines his father is talking to him, and these fantasy projections might serve to highlight how Dexter is really insane, but strangely they instead work in the opposite direction, signifying precisely how Dexter is different from Lila and Miguel. He serves a code; they don’t.
The code here is what Freud would call the superego and Lacan would call the symbolic order. You can read a brief and clear explanation of the relationship between the ego and the superego (or between the imaginary and the symbolic) written by Slavoj Zizek by clicking here. The superego is often misunderstood to mean simply the “law” or moral order, but Lacan and Zizek both point out that the superego/symbolic order is actually obscene because of its relation to the ego’s desire. In other words, to conceptualize the superego as the neutral “law of the founding father” is to misunderstand that law’s relationship to our own desire. After all, whenever Dexter imagines his father talking to him, this is always a projection of his own rationalization for whatever psychopathic, criminal acts he is undertaking. Hence, the show’s portrayal of the relationship between Dexter and his father gives us a good sense of the superego and how crazy it is. His archetypal father is a “good cop” who desired to punish criminals, and therefore Dexter’s actions reflect the internalization of that sadistic, self-punishing superego, a superego whose mandates are projected outward onto others deemed worse than Dexter.
Dexter’s character doubles (i.e., his brother, Lila, and Miguel) actually threaten Dexter’s symbolic order (the code of his father) by forcing Dexter to confront the reality of his own evil (his id). In the concluding episode of each season, he has to kill off these individuals, and in doing so he is really killing off himself. And this is what Freud calls the “death drive”; the death drive does not mean we actually want to die, but that the demands of the superego are so severe that we punish ourselves whenever we don’t achieve our idealized self (or “ego-ideal); and hence what Dexter does is not kill himself but kill his character doubles. (And we all exhibit this death drive when he attempt to “reform” or “improve” or “change” ourselves; the show Dexter is simply the literalization of this metaphor.)
And significantly the narrative arc of this death drive for each season of the show always coincides with Dexter’s embrace of the normative family order. In other words, in the final concluding episode Dexter BOTH kills off his double AND reaffirms his attachment to the traditional nuclear family. Season two concludes with a gorgeously sentimental image of the perfect family with his girlfriend Rita that he apparently was only able to embrace by killing off Lila — Lila, the one who encouraged him to embrace his dark side or id. Similarly, season three concludes with his equally sentimental marriage ceremony to Rita. As he says in the very first episode of the first season, his wonderfully conventional relationship to Rita is what supports his “ego-ideal” or his ideal self; in other words, his “imaginary” relationship to social norms. (And moreover the show intelligently clearly indicates whenever Rita doesn’t behave in ways that support Dexter’s ego-ideal — in other words, whenever she is really herself rather than Dexter’s ideal woman.) Dexter’s idyllic family-man self is inevitably threatened by his own character doubles, which are after all just expressions of his own psychosis. Metaphorically speaking, Dexter’s dramatic encounters with his evil character doubles are analogous to his need to work through his own issues with Rita, as his witty voice-over commentary amusingly indicates.
The narrative structure of seasons two and three are almost completely identical and therefore somewhat predictable. Their predictability might make the show a bit boring season after season except for the show’s brilliant writing. What Dexter’s voice-over narration of his internal psychological dilemmas repeatedly provokes us to think about is the obscenity of social norms. Dexter is too much like us, and this produces an effect that Freud calls the uncanny. Now, what’s important to point out here is that the writers of the show did not attempt to write about a “real” psychopath; rather, they deliberately blended and mixed together the qualities of a psychopath with ordinary observations about how we strategically interact with people on a day-to-day basis. In other words, we are always imagining ego-ideals (idealized images of ourselves) in relation to a “code” — a code that we recognize is obscene but cynically buy into anyway — in order to manage our drives (our id). We all do this, and in a sense we are all a little nuts. Hence, through the interplay between normative and psychotic discourse, the show reinforces at the same time it subverts the bourgeois family ideal (wife and kids, house in the suburbs, etc.), and it does this not by giving us an accurate depiction of a serial killer but by playing with Freudian categories and character doubles. The best part of the show is of course not the plot or the characters but Dexter’s own constant witty commentary that deliberately mixes the musings of a psychopath with ordinary observations about social reality and personal relationships.
And here finally we can offer a critique of Dexter by analyzing his character doubles. In season one, his double is the brother who grew up in foster care; in season two it is an aggressive woman; and in season three it is a Cuban who had an abusive father. (In season three there is also the Nicaraguan ex-Contra terrorist.) So, these doubles (or doppelgängers, which is the literary term) are always monstrous ”others” because of their social position outside the ideal of the white, American bourgeois family (that Rita, in spite of her own psychological problems, represents.) This is why Lacan once asserted provocatively in one lecture that “woman does not exist” and in other lecture that there is no such thing as “others.” Psychoanalytically speaking, such “others” are merely imaginary projections that enable Dexter (and the audience of Dexter) to construct his own ideal self. (In other words, people aren’t all that different from each other, but we are neurotically compelled to imagine that they are.) But again, what I like about the show is that it constantly reminds us of how creepy the whole situation is, so that we can never fully believe that Dexter is any better than the sexist and racist portraits of his doubles. To put it another way, the mistake would be to read this show literally and think that Dexter is a “good guy” in contrast to the “bad guys” such as his brother, Lila, Miguel, and “the skinner.” Against this literal reading, the character doubles and the brilliant movement between “normal” and “crazy” discourse in Dexter’s voice-over monologues should force us to come to terms with the ways in which we are all a little bit nuts.
Another way to look at the show Dexter and its brilliant investigation into the relationship between id, ego, and superego is to consider the notion of the “state of exception” theorized recently by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. This is a political concept that is used to justify a state of emergency when the government can suspend the rule of law in order to pursue an action whose intended goal is to return the world to a state of law and order. In other words, it is a paradoxical state of affairs, since most believers in democracy would find it impossible to produce a lawful state through extra-legal means. And not surprisingly, Agamben’s book explicitly critiques George Bush’s “war on terror” which basically claims that its illegal activity is justified because only through non-legal means can law and order be restored during a state of emergency.
And isn’t that what Dexter is constantly doing? For him, the ordinary legal structures are not adequately prosecuting criminals and protecting citizens, so he must supplement the law by engaging in exactly the same illegal behavior as the criminals. And moreover, if he does not hurry, then other innocent people will die, and hence, Dexter always has his own private states of emergency that compel him to act.
But Agamben’s concept is a political concept, so what does it have to do with the psychoanalytic concepts I’ve been discussing thus far?…. Hmm…. Well, Dexter helps us understand how our “codes” (or, the “law” or intention of our founding fathers) are actually a little nuts because there is a dialectical relationship between the “law” and our own “ego-ideals” and our ugly id. After all, in order for the code to seem reasonable, we must constantly be committing acts of suicide by attacking imaginary “evil-doers” which are actually just our own character doubles. What I’m suggesting here is that one of the things that makes Dexter so compelling is the extent to which its story begun in 2006 seems to mirror the story spun by the mainstream media just a few years before to justify the war in Iraq and the extraordinary rendition of suspected terrorists. Dexter’s rationalizaton of his actions in some ways mirrors the American government’s rationalization of its actions. After all, in season 3 of Dexter, the “skinner” was an interrogations officer in Nicaragua for the Contras, who were sponsored by the U.S. government through the CIA and many of the interrogations officers would have been trained in Georgia at the School of the Americas. Similarly, al Qaeda was an American creation and funded by the American government back in the 1980s to fight against Soviet communism.
In conclusion, the lines I quoted above from Dexter about character doubles perhaps also serve to explain my psychanalytic argument about the state of exception: “It’s strange to have a creation out there, a deeply mutated version of yourself, running loose and screwing everything up. I wonder if this is how parents feel.”
Last night I went to K’Naan’s concert at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis, and it totally rocked. Seriously, it was so much fun. If you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple years and don’t know who K’Naan is, he’s the Somali-Canadian rapper from Toronto whose song “Wavin’ Flag” became one of the official FIFA theme songs for the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament. The rather tame World Cup version of the song has been peformed by artists around the world in 22 different languages, but of course fans prefer the more edgy and politically significant original. K’Naan himself has performed concerts in 67 countries, including his homeland Somalia. When I was travelling in Ethiopia this summer, I noticed that some people’s cell phone ringers were the “Wavin’ Flag” song. At the concert last night, I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd, including African immigrants not just from Somalia but from a variety of countries, African-Americans, Euro-Americans, Asian Americans, etc. A couple of white men standing near me in the audience (age mid-20s, I’d guess) seemed to have memorized all the lyrics and were vigorously singing along the entire show. The overall vibe in the room was intensely positive, and several people had brought their own flags, heralding a variety of countries, so during the “Wavin’ Flag” song, people actually waved flags, dramatizing the internationalism of the event.
An amazing coincidence is that even before I knew he would be performing in Minneapolis, I had actually assigned K’Naan to my first-year seminar for last week’s lesson. I was inspired to create a new unit for my class on the Hmong and Somali in Minnesota after several incidents of racism against Somalis close to where I live last year (and which I blogged about [here].) I decided to assign K’Naan to show a different side of Somali culture as it manifests itself in Diaspora than what they will get from the history book we’re reading together — a side of Somali culture that the students can better relate to. The past couple years, I’ve noticed that in almost all my classes, there is at least one student who is a K’Naan fan, and because of the World Cup almost everyone is familiar with the “Wavin’ Flag” song even if they don’t know who its author is. During a brief discussion in class last week, my students observed that we often think of the American flag as a symbol for freedom, which reflects our bias as Americans, but that K’Naan’s song wisely makes the case that any flag, from anywhere, can be a symbol of freedom.
So, do I have a theoretical point to make here? Not really, but I’ll try to make a few simple gestures. First, recently colleges across the country have become interested in teaching “intercultural competence.” Usually, these programs, such as the “Intercultural Competence Assessment“, have emphasized the recognition of cultural difference. But I have some serious disagreements with such programs, as I’ve blogged about before [here], but before I explain my disagreements, I want to reveal why most students also will never be convinced by that model. When I brought up the question of diversity and cultural difference in my “race and ethnicity in U.S. literatures” class last year, several of my students told me about an episode of The Office entitled “Diversity Day.” Most of our students watch this show and seem to know this particular episode which actually makes fun of precisely the model of intercultural competence being promoted on college campuses today — a model that I call the “business school model” since that’s where it originated.
And the TV show makes fun of it for good reason. By emphasizing arbitrary differences such as clothing, handshakes, and marriage ceremonies, “diversity day” ignores the political and economic issues that really affect people’s lives and interests. In other words, as my students easily recognized, it gives you cultural difference without the possibility of real difference — without the possibility of having a different opinion that might conflict with policy or with a general business model. (By the way, a great novel recently published on this theme is Mohsin Hamid’s Reluctant Fundamentalist, in which Hamid surprisingly reveals in the middle of the novel that the fundamentalism he’s referring to is not Islamic fundamentalism at all, but the economic fundamentalism of Wall Street.)
As theorist Slavoj Zizek wrote a couple weeks ago for The Guardian [here], the kind of vapid multiculturalism promoted by the intercultural competency assesors and satirized by The Office gives you difference without real difference, like decaffeinated coffee or sugar-free drinks. Interestingly, the World Cup version of K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” is kind of like decaffeinated coffee — the controversial lyrics removed in order to celebrate a global unity. Fortunately, none of my students or the fans in the audience are fooled by the Coca-Cola-ized World Cup version of the song and prefer the original which rather explicitly debunks the false promises of global unity (see the lyrics [here] for yourself.)
Moreover, what K’Naan’s global popularity suggests is that the arbitrary cultural differences that the administrators and assessors of intercultural competency wrongly believe are so important aren’t quite so important after all. Focusing on such arbitrary differences misses the point entirely. No matter where you are in the world, people like to have fun, want to be free, want security, fall in love, etc., as K’Naan says explicitly in his song “Dreamer” — a tribute to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” What we have in common is our struggle in an imperfect world rife with poverty, economic exploitation, and violence.
So, what’s the upshot here? Reflecting on the K’Naan concert and all the various things my students have told me (such as when they recommended I watch the movie “Good Hair” that I blogged about a few weeks ago [here]), I think our students are already pretty smart about intercultural competence, and we as teachers can learn a lot from them. The problem as I see it is when administrators and assessors don ‘t recognize the skills and knowledge our students already have and instead impose a rather simplistic (and rather silly) model of “intercultural competence” upon them. In other words, intercultural competence isn’t all that hard and doesn’t require a lot of theoretical sophistication so long as we begin with some rather obvious facts about the world we live in — the fact of the K’Naan concert, for instance. What I mean by ”fact” here is that it happened. In contrast, notions of “difference” are not facts; they are notions and conceptualizations. So we can ignore the model imposed upon us by the “assessors” not only because it actually does more to obscure reality than it does to explain it, but also, more importantly, because it doesn’t recognize what our students already know, and what they already know might actually be smarter and more in touch with reality than what the assessors are advocating.
A couple years ago, I taught a class on postmodern revisions of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter, and I also have used his novel as a prooftext for teaching my introduction to literary theory class. The list of literary and pop cultural revisions is really long, including three novels by John Updike, two plays by Suzan-Lori Parks, and episodes of TV shows The Simpsons and Popular, just to name a few. So, not surprisingly, when the movie Easy A came out a couple weeks ago, several of my former students asked me if I intended to see it.
And of course I did. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer:
As you might guess, the movie (which, by the way, has been quite successful at the box office) is pretty typical of teen-drama adaptations of Hawthorne’s story. The good-hearted but delightfully cynical Olive is rumored to have lost her virginity even though she hasn’t. The rumor spreads with lightning speed via cell phone text messaging. Later, to protect her gay friend Brandon from constantly getting beat up at school for being gay, she decides to use the rumor to Brandon’s advantage and pretends to have sex with him. (And this turn of events should remind you of Hester Prynne protecting Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.) In saving Brandon’s reputation, she loses control of her own, as the school erupts into a hysterical, puritanical rage, and soon everyone is using her as their scapegoat, blaming their own indiscretions on her. Just as in the “Caged!” episode of the show Popular (produced by the same person as the more successful show Glee), the high school students are reading the novel in their English class at the same time that events in their lives appear to mirror the novel’s main themes — in this case, the theme that religious conservatives are hypocritical jerks. Simple?
No, not so simple. Nevermind that Hawthorne’s novel is infinitely more complex than that — an obvious point and not very interesting; the movie also is infinitely more complex than that. So, let’s just talk about the movie on its own terms for a moment. The clever counterpoint to the puritanical hissy fit thrown by her classmates is the behavior of her parents and the parents of her friend Rhiannon. They belong to the 60s hippy generation, and the movie is set in the famously hippy-esque town of Ojai, California. Their own sexual permissiveness, devil-may-care worldview, and supportive expressions of love for their daughter no matter what she does is the antithesis to the rigidly judgemental behavior of her high school peers. So, what do we make of the dialectic between excessively oppressive judgement and the excessive lack of judgement in the movie? Is one good, the other bad?
To throw yet another monkey at the wrench (hahaha), one big difference between Hawthorne’s version and Easy A is that the geeky boys all claim to have had sex with Olive in order to upgrade their own reputations. So, in addition to the social pressure to remain virginal, there is at the same time the social pressure to score. In fact, some of the boys in the movie are almost on the verge of tears because of their reputations as unattractive virgins who will never get a girl. Is this merely a gender role double standard where boys are supposed to get as much action as they can and girls are supposed to remain virgins until marriage (or, at least, until true love)? No, it’s trickier than that. At the beginning of the movie, her friend Rhiannon is also pressuring Olive to lose her virginity, but then once Olive becomes the “sex star” of the school (instead of Rhiannon’s prominent and always-on-display boobs), then Rhiannon turns on Olive and joins the religious conservatives. How is Rhiannon so easily able to switch sides?
What the dialectic between extreme judgement and extreme permissiveness in the movie reveals is that they are not quite as opposite as we might think. Though Olive’s parents would appear to tolerate anything she does, she is unable to tell them the truth about what’s going on, and so she speaks through the scarlet A as a symbol of her inability to speak and her inability to successfully negotiate the contradictory expectations of her society. In so-called olden times, the patriarchal father is supposed to be the one to lay down the law, so we would hide our transgressions from him, but in our liberated postmodern world the lawlessness of the new-age father also traps us in his open-ended expectations. What do we say to “the law” when we aren’t sure what the law wants from us?
Now, let’s back up just a bit and think historically. The typical reaction of readers to The Scarlet Letter is “golly gee, them Puritans sure were tough; I’m glad we live in these here more progressive-like times.” So, what is a revision that sets an old story in our present context supposed to do? Does it show us how things are different now, or does it show us that things are basically the same? Or is the revision commenting on the older text, making an improvement, suggesting that the earlier version wasn’t quite right, that it was missing something, or that it just wasn’t fair to one of the characters? In any case, a common tendency is to read the older text with the assumption that our world has progressed and therefore is less repressed.
However, as two very different philosophers of culture Slavoj Zizek and Michel Foucault have argued, maybe something else is going on. For Zizek, what seems to be a liberal permissiveness is actually just a new demand — the demand that we must enjoy. The law of this seemingly new-age permissive father is actually the cultural logic of our age of consumer capitalism… the logic that says we absolutely must pursue happiness at all costs. For Foucault, especially in his classic book The History of Sexuality, volume 1, the apparent sexual revolution of the 1960s was nothing more than an intensification of the discourse about our sexuality. In other words, Foucault argues against what he calls the “repressive hypothesis”; this is the hypothesis that back in olden days before the liberatory work of Freudian psychoanalysis, things were more repressive. Instead, for Foucault, the cultural codes, institutions of morality, and modes of discourse — in other words, the way we talk about the sexual acts we’re not supposed to talk about — are not simply something repressive that we now pretend to liberate ourselves from. Rather, the repressive apparatus (e.g., the church, the school, doctors, etc.) actually invogorates and directs our desire. In other words, society is not just repressive of our desire; it is productive of our desire. In effect, the discourse of sexuality places us in the midst of paradoxical, conflicting demands that are perhaps even more intense now than they were before…
….and this is what I think the movie Easy A is about. In our supposedly liberated, post-60s world, things are not so “easy” after all.
And where does the movie end up? Exactly where you might expect – not the politically radical ending of Hawthorne’s novel where Hester refuses to capitulate to the hypocritical social order and where she instead invents an alternative ethos. Rather, it ends with Olive confessing “the truth” in public and finding exactly the safe romance that everyone wanted for her in the first place…. Sigh. Oh well, it’s still a good movie, full of the surrealistic, postmodern pastiche that we all love.
Now, what I haven’t said anything about in this blog post is another bit of cleverness in the movie – its allusion to another American classic often taught in high school. While Olive expresses herself by alluding to The Scarlet Letter, her gay friend Brandon expresses his own sexuality by alluding to Huckleberry Finn as he runs away from town with a black man. There’s a lot more to say here, but I’ll leave that thread for someone else to unravel.