Theory Teacher's Blog

So… You Want Humanities!!! (The Retort)

Almost exactly a month ago, I blogged [here] about the Xtranormal on-line cartoon “So you want to get a PhD in the humanities” that almost everyone in universities across the country (and outside the country) was talking about. That cartoon was so popular that it inspired a myriad of copycats about various other graduate school programs, including political science, physics, law school, film, business, and economics. It also inspired a reaction. One of my former students just e-mailed me this reactionary retort called “Yes, I want to get a Ph.D. in the Humanities” that was made a few days after my blog post about the original. In my post today, I want to briefly explain three things: first, why they copycats are not as funny as the original; second, the factual inaccuracies in the retort; and three, the ways in which the retort is a classic example of conservative, reactionary ideology. But before I do that, check it out:

First, why aren’t the copycats so funny?  The copycats resemble the original in that they exaggerate the bitterness of the professor and the naïveté of the student in order to dramatise the ironic contradiction between what the student (and society at large) expects and wants to believe and what the professor fears to be true. But despite the basic, structural similarity, it’s clear if you fool around with google searches that they haven’t had the popularity or buzz of the original. In my opinion, the copycats are less funny for a number of reasons. One reason is their lack of exigency — or what in Greek is called kairos.  Essentially, the context for the original was the recent cuts in various humanities programs at universities across the country that occurred at the same time a political movement in the country was attacking humanities professors. This situation was unique to humanities programs. The cartoon about business school, at least, does include references to the recent recession and the reckless greed on Wall Street that produced it, but the others appear to float above recent historical circumstances. What most of the copycats do instead is simply dramatise the difference between the idealised version and the realistic version — except that because their realistic version has no anchor in true reality (i.e., historical events or even much truth at all), the result is simply two competing fantasies (one utopic, the other distopic), both of which are absurd. A final reason why the copycats are less funny is that they seem to have misunderstood the multiple audiences of the original. As I wrote in my blog before, the original had two audiences, college students and college professors. My interpretation of the original is that it was more a satire on the contradictory state of universities today than it was a mockery of idealistic college students. Since the copycats seem to miss the sophistication of the original (i.e., its multiple audiences and its historical depth), they come across as flippant and silly.

But what about the retort? The retort draws attention to all the privileges and perks enjoyed by graduate students and college professors, but its many obvious factual inaccuracies undermine its humor. First, it assumes all graduate students get free health care, don’t pay taxes, and get to live in an affluent neighborhood, but of course graduate students had to fight hard in order to get health care and don’t pay taxes because they barely make enough to pay rent. (Never mind that not all universities are in affluent neighborhoods.) The history of health care is too complicated to describe in my blog today, but it includes instances in the recent past of graduate students without health care in near-death situations. Second, few graduate students get to travel around Europe, because such scholarships are extremely competitive and have become even more competitive in recent years, especially when European language programs are being cut entirely. There is a huge disconnect between the realities of being a college professor and the idealized version in the video. Likewise, in the popular imagination, college professors make a lot of money, but few actually do. Unfortunately, people who serve on the boards of universities and who actually affect its administrative decisions often believe the popular media representations of the overpaid, underworked, overprivileged professor and fail to give their full attention to the very data (i.e., actual salaries and lists of responsibilities) that is supposed to be the basis for their decisions. In other words, unfortunately, the fantasy about academic life has the potential to produce as much of an effect on administrative decisions as real, statistical data. Moreover, the video assumes that the recession is equally tough for everyone, but this is false. In fact it is statistically harder for Ph.D.’s in humanities to get jobs than for people with B.A.’s, and the reason for this is rather obvious — there is a wide variety of jobs someone with a B.A. can get (e.g., a bachelor’s degree in English can lead to a job in publishing, media, public relations, personnel, administration, teaching, law, medicine, politics, philanthropy, advocacy, etc., etc., etc.), but obviously a very limited pool of jobs for someone with a Ph.D. (e.g., being a professor or working in college administration.)

So, how does this video represent a reactionary, conservative ideology? There are obvious signs, such as the rather childish comment about postmodern theory and the irrelevant quotation by John Adams. The comment about theory is childish because empirical research was always the mainstay of English departments; and likewise theoretical questions have always been, and always will be, interesting to anyone with a brain wanting to do original research — theory simply inspires and directs new research questions. In fact, if anything, the highly empirical research models of Michel Foucault are now so entrenched that most graduate students are basically doing Foucaultian work even though they may not be fluent speakers of Foucault’s jargon or interested in his critical perspective (a state of affairs that many scholars observed about a decade ago.) The quote by John Adams is irrelevant since Adams lived two centuries ago and was expressing an ideal that he hoped the country would commit to, not describing the reality of what the country has in fact actually committed to. But beyond these two superficial signs of the anti-intellectual, reactionary ideology, we can go deeper. Conservative ideology values nostalgic, idealised imagery and represses data about actual working conditions. Whether one is talking about automobile workers, high school teachers, or farmers, the image the conservatives hold on to is one of happy, good people threatened by outsiders and subversives (i.e., dark-skinned theorists.) This image is deployed to undermine labor unions’ efforts to achieve basic rights such as minimum wage, safe working conditions, overtime pay, and realistic expectations about productivity. Hence, the point of the video is that we should all be content with the fantasy and suppress all of those who might point out the difference between the fantasy and reality.

That said, what I appreciate about the video is that it does remind professors that the job can be really sweet if one happens to be one of the lucky few to land in a good place. The hardest part about getting a Ph.D. in my experience is simply this — one has to commit oneself to a very uncertain future.


November 28, 2010 Posted by | media, teaching | 3 Comments

How Not To Start a War with North Korea

As you may have heard, earlier today North Korea and South Korea exchanged artillery fire for about an hour, and two South Koreans were killed. We don’t know if any North Koreans were killed. It started when the South Korean military was practicing war maneuvers in a region of disputed territory. North Korea fired upon them, and fire was returned. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government condemned North Korea for firing shots but didn’t condemn South Korea for practicing war maneuvers in disputed territory. Already some have expressed fear about the possibility of war, which is a horrifying prospect, to be sure. I’m personally concerned about this since a couple of my former students are in Seoul right now, and also I was living in Japan in 1999 when North Korea tested a missile in Japanese airspace. So, how do we not start a war with North Korea?

What I think we can expect to see from the mainstream media are stories about how crazy and irrational the North Korean government is. The stories will discuss South Korean and American losses but never North Korean losses. They will also include remarks about the mysterious and unknown qualities of life and policy-making within that state. In fact, most of the articles probably could have been written last year or ten years ago; it will be the same story we’ve heard before, just repeated in a new context, and my guess is that President Obama will also repeat the exact same story. And the story will of course serve to underscore the impossibility of negotiating with North Korea, though Obama will claim the moral high ground and repeatedly say that reasoned negotiation is precisely what he desires. At the same time, these stories will produce a shared fear and anxiety among all Americans, Japanese, and others.

What will be missing from Obama and the mainstream media’s narrative about North Korea’s craziness? What will be missing, I predict, is precisely how not to start a war that nobody wants. Let’s consider how it all started again. South Korea was doing military maneuvers in disputed territory…. Why would they do that? Considering the longstanding tension in the region, was that a wise thing to do?

Let me put it another way by making an analogy. If you see an angry dog in a yard acting a little crazily, do you (a) walk over and tease it, call it names, poke it with a stick, spill its food dish, and back it into a corner, or do you (b) trust that the fence around the yard doesn’t have a hole in it and leave the dog alone. Now, to be clear, I don’t want to defend Kim Jong-il’s policies and political rhetoric; to me, they seem crazy. But what also is a little crazy is for American and South Korean policy to be constantly poking at him, calling him names, upsetting North Korea’s economy, and backing the country into a corner. In other words, who is crazier — the crazy person or the person who messes with the crazy person?

Let’s back up for a bit — a brief history. In the 1990s, North Korea started building a nuclear power plant. The American media and government immediately feared the possibility of North Korea having nuclear weapons. This is a legitimate fear. What the fear ignores, of course, is the rather more commonsense reason why they’d be building a power plant — electricity. The country has no oil or natural gas, and these commodities are very expensive on the open market, especially for a poor country. To keep its people warm during the winter and develop industry, a nation needs energy. It is important to note that the United States has repeatedly prevented other countries all over the world from developing nuclear energy, thus forcing them to rely on oil and gas (which of course benefits the profits of oil companies, mostly based in the United States and Great Britain.) America’s fear of nuclear weapons is understandable and reasonable, but when negotiating with another country one also has to be sensitive to their obvious need. In this case, North Korea just spent a lot of money building a power plant, so it’s a bit silly to think that another country can just order them to stop building one. It’s expensive, so one has to offer a concession. President Bill Clinton negotiated precisely such a deal, and though North Korean continued its belligerent rhetoric and tested a missile, no damage was actually done. They were showing off their strength. The United States was also showing off its strength, of course. This is all for show, like boys on the playground showing off their muscles. Everyone knows this. Then in 2002, George Bush ignored the deal; he said nonsensically that North Korea was part of the axis of evil. Things started getting bad, and North Korea resumed its nuclear program. More recently, last year, the United Nations and Obama instituted economic sanctions against North Korea.

So, what’s the upshot? Essentially, the United States has been poking at North Korea’s government, calling it names, interfering with its plans to supply much-needed source of energy, and backing them into a corner by instituting economic sanctions against a country whose people are very, very poor. Has our strategy been wise?

In any negotiation, all sides must acknowledge that the other sides have legitimate needs, concerns, and points of view. Otherwise, nothing will move forward. In public and in the media, the United States has tended to refuse to recognize any legitimacy in North Korea’s point of view. So, the question is, towards what ends? What is America’s real agenda here? Is it wrong of the North Korean government to suspect the United States of harboring a desire to overthrow its government? Can we be honest with ourselves here? Will honesty help us avert a tragic war? For liberal political theorists such as Jurgen Habermas, recognition of the other is essential for reasoned negotiation of interests. But is it so simple?

I don’t think so. By way of illustration, the theorist Slavoj Zizek once made a very witty and clever critique of Donald Rumsfeld’s neo-con theory of foreign policy. Here is what Zizek wrote:

In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t known.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we can’t know that we know — which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.

In other words, what Rumsfeld and the American public refused to acknowledge was our own historical role creating the problem and the political will-to-power that could not be publicly stated. The simple theoretical point here is that to “not start a war a another nation,” a nation must look into itself. Theoretically speaking, then, instead of  interrogating and bullying the other (the neo-con position) or even recognizing the other (the liberal position), we ought to think critically through the Other (big O), the Other that is both the whole historical Relation in its unknowable totality and the dialectical desire for fulfillment (i.e., void) within each of us — the desire/void all of us share in common, whether we are North Korean, American, or whatever. As Edouard Glissant theorizes in his book Poetics of Relation, there is no other; rather, there is Relation.

November 24, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments