Theory Teacher's Blog

Turkish Ladies, English Liberty: Toward a Psychoanalysis of Difference in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Letters

In last week’s blog post, I used Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory of signs to analyze the recent internet buzz about women in Iran studying to become ninjas. If you haven’t already seen the video about it, click [here] or check out my earlier post. In that post, I argued that clothing functions like a linguistic signifier of cultural difference. Essentially the Islamic hijab (headscarf or headscarf and veil) are usually understood by Europeans and Americans today not only as a symbol for  how Muslims are different, but also as a symbol for how Muslim women are oppressed by Islam. The connotations are so powerful that a simple piece of clothing is overloaded (or “overdetermined” to use Freud’s concept that my class just read about) with all sorts of meaning, some of which, I argue, is prejudicial and symptomatic of American anxieties. We might compare this overdetermination in our culture to the sort of overdetermination that Freud sees in dreams, in which the various metaphors (condensation) and metonymies (displacement) are symptomatic of our daily anxieties, psychological repressions, etc.

Coincidentally, just a few days after writing that post, I happened to read some of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters that she wrote three centuries ago in 1717 when her husband was an ambassador to Turkey. This is my first time ever reading her work, and I regret not having read it before. She is very witty and clever, and her published letters about her experiences in Turkey were quite popular at the time and are now usually included in anthologies of English literature. Montagu’s lengthy descriptions of the Turkish baths reveal a fascination with the idea of Muslim women in one of the most powerful empires in the eighteenth century lounging around naked in each other’s company. The image is one of freedom and comfort, and she contrasts this image to the complex stays and corsets of English clothing, which she compares to a “machine” that has her “locked up.” In another letter on “Turkish Dress,” she again contrasts her own uncomfortable clothing to the more comfortable dress. Now, here is what I find fascinating, and I’m going to quote it in full.

‘Tis very easy to see they have more liberty than we have, no woman of what rank soever being permitted to go in the streets without two muslins, one that covers her face all but her eyes and another that hides the whole dress of her head and hangs half way down her back…. You may guess how effectually this disguises them, that there is no distinguishing the great lady from her slave, and ’tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife when he meets her, and no man dare either touch of follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations without danger of discovery…. The great ladies seldom let their gallants know who they are, and ‘its so difficult to find it out that they can very seldom guess at her name they have corresponded with above half a year together…. Neither have they much to apprehend from the resentment of their husbands, those ladies that are rich having all their money in their own hands, which they take with ’em upon a divorce with an addition which he is obliged to give ’em. Upon the whole, I look upon the Turkish women as the only free people in the Empire. The very Divan pays a respect to ’em, and the Grand Signore himself, whenever a Bassa is executed, never violates the privileges of the harem, which remains unsearched entire to the widow.

You can also find the whole passage on [this website]. What is interesting to me is how her eighteenth-century imagination of the hijab is exactly the opposite of the American and European imagination in the twenty-first century. She sees it as liberating, whereas the American media today sees it as oppressive. What do we make of this total reversal of meaning?

Montagu is, I suspect, using the idea of Turkish difference to launch a feminist critique of English society. One may doubt her assessment of how free Turkish women actually were, and she seems to enjoy the scandalousness of the point that she is making. Few Muslims would agree with her sense of freedom in terms of the ability to commit acts of infidelity undetected. But the reality of the daily lives of English or Turkish people is not the purpose of my analysis, nor even, perhaps, of Montagu’s own intention in writing those letters, an intention we can only guess at anyway. (In my view, and in my experience in Japan, the Czech Republic, Kenya, and Ethiopia, people are usually just people, and the hype about cultural difference is generally overblown and potentially dangerous. Freedom and unfreedom, wealth and poverty — these are things that exist in every society I’ve ever encountered, especially my own.) Rather, I am interested in the fantasy and in the use of a rather utopian representation of freedom to critique the oppression of one’s homeland. My own interpretation of Montagu’s letters is that her idea exposes the ways in which English women are not free, considering that they are subject to so much abuse and disrespect. The style of clothing, for Montagu, is a signifier of the abuse and disrespect in English society versus the freedom and respect in Turkish society.

The thing about her eighteenth-century letters that made me think of the twenty-first century video about ninjas in Iran is the notion that the headscarf and veil are instruments of stealth and invisibility, and that this is powerful. After all, ninjitsu is the art of invisibility. What does it mean for both the 18th-century letters and the 21st-century video to understand a woman’s liberty in terms of her ability to be invisible? This is a curious notion indeed. If we think of Freud’s work on dreams and Jacques Lacan’s work on the very language we use to describe our social relations, then we begin to detect the ways in which gender is a product of signifiers — in this case, clothing, but as Saussure and Lacan also argue, signifiers organized by a logic of difference. Hence, the meaning of the signifiers “men” and “women” is the logic of their difference, and this committment to such a difference means that we never actually “see” just the person. We always see the person in terms of these culturally loaded signifiers. A woman is already “invisible” in the sense that her real objective self exists behind a cloud of language and culture. Montagu’s desire is for her own invisibility, but this desire paradoxically is symptomatic of the fact that she actually already feels invisible. It is a curious thing to desire that which you already are, or have, and this is the curious nature of the human psyche. She already feels invisible because English men neither understand nor want to understand her as a person with a brain. This is what Lacan means when he suggests “there is no such thing as woman.” He doesn’t mean that individual women don’t exist. He means that the notion of “woman” is a culturally loaded idea. Ralph Ellison made a similar point about African-Americans in his famous novel Invisible Man, published in 1952, where white people do not really “see” black people. Instead, they only see projected images of their own fears and desires. Likewise, the symbolism of the Turksish baths, harem, and hijab all metaphorically mean a condition of invisibility. Montagu’s celebration of that invisibility displaces her anxiety about feeling invisible and disempowered all the time already onto a more empowering form of invisibility. For her in the eighteenth century, this was the hijab. For us today, it is the ninja, whose clothing style is curiously similar to the hijab in many ways, as I argued in my previous blog post.


February 27, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ninja Women in Iran and Saussure’s Theory of the Linguistic Sign

hijab or shinobi shozoku?

This past week, the internet was buzzing with news of Iran’s secret army of “deadly ninja women.” It sounds like something straight out of the plot of a James Bond movie, in which the world’s favorite “global hero” would have to seduce the deadly but also sexy ninja Muslim girl and save the planet from nuclear holocaust. The Washington Post imagined director Quentin Tarantino taking on this seemingly made-for-cinema topos. Of course, Iran has no such “army” of secret sexy soldiers who are experts in the art of invisibility. Rather, this is merely a club sport, like so many club sports for men and women around the world. In the United States today, thousands of women take kickboxing classes, and thousands more take pole dancing. If we can imagine Hollywood making a movie in which James Bond or some other international man of mystery falls in love with an Iranian ninja woman, can we also imagine Iran’s well-regarded movie industry making an action thriller with an Iranian secret agent seducing an American ex-cheerleader in order to prevent the world from another American-instigated war in the Middle East? The producers of the film would be sitting around a table in Tehran debating whether to make that character a kickboxer or a pole dancer.

What I want to argue here, since my theory class is just now beginning its unit on theories about language and signs, is that this video perfectly illustrates Ferdinand de Saussure’s famous point about the relationship between the signifier and the signified being constituted by a logic of difference. In this case, the signifier is the veil that has become such a politically loaded symbol of Islam, but is, of course, also an essential feature of the Japanese art of ninjitsu. Before I go on, please check out the video of Iran’s ninja women that has gone viral on YouTube.

Now that’s badaaassss!!!

There is a lot one can say about this video, but the point I want to make is about the nature of signs. One of the arguments of the structuralist linguistics presented be Ferdinand de Saussure is that language does not merely refer to things. Rather, language is a system constituted by difference. As human subjects, we enter a system of language that we come to understand even if we have never seen the things that the words refer to. Consequently, if the system of language pre-exists our experience of things, and if meaning is derived not from the thing itself but from the principle of difference, then we might begin to suspect that language affects how we see the world.

The particular sign that I want to focus on is the veil and headscarf (hijab) that is a standard feature for Muslim women and for ninjas. In European and American culture, the sign of the veil is typically understood as a symbol of Islam’s oppression of women. In this sense, the veil and headscarf  is understood by the West as a sign of difference –how they are different from us. Many connotations are attached to this one symbol, and it is somewhat famously controversial, but the strongest connotation for Europeans and Americans is oppression. What is curious about this symbol is how divorced from any sense of the ordinary, everyday life in the countries where hijab is commonly worn. So, the assumption in the western media is that all Iranian women are oppressed, and the meaning of this article of clothing is oppression. The piece of clothing functions as a sign — a sign overloaded with meaning, kind of like the way the Scarlet Letter A functions as sign for the Puritans in Hawthorne’s famous novel. An example of the western assumption is the rather chauvinistic article about the women ninjas. This article wrongly assumes that the women ninjas are resisting state sponsored oppression. But this is no underground movement. In fact, the ninja clubs are part of a general state sponsored fitness program, the exact opposite of the‘s idiotic assumption. What the also neglects to mention is that 60% of all college graduates in Iran are women, and it has one of the most progressive family medical leave programs in the world. (The United States, in contrast, has one of the least progressive.) Considering that feminists have long been arguing for a more progressive family medical act, why is it so hard for American feminists to appreciate Iran? Why is hijab understood as oppressive and bikinis and pole dancing liberating? Despite the fact that Iranian women play sports, western governments won’t allow them to play in competitions for one reason only — the hijab clothing, simply because of its symbolic meaning.

What I think is so fascinating about the above video is that, when I am watching it, I can’t quite tell which part of the outfit is hijab and which part is the ninja’s outfit, called in Japanese shinobi shozoku. And this is key, because when we think about ninjas in the Japanese context, rather than the Iranian context, we think of that sort of clothing not as a symbol of oppression, but as a symbol of power. Hence, in the imagination of the other culture (always exaggerated according to a logic of difference — of us versus them), this same item of clothing in one context means weakness and in another context means strength. And this is why I think Saussure is correct when he says that the meaning of signs is not so much based on the referent (the thing that you can point to with your index finger — in this case, the clothing), but to the whole system of signs that the one sign is a part of.

And of course, the reason for all this odd fascination in American pop culture with the ninja women in Iran at this particular moment is that the United States happens to be leading an international embargo of Iran’s economy and threatening Iran with the possibility of an attack. Iran, meanwhile, continues to develop its nuclear program. It is not the point of this blog to make a political argument for or against the embargo or to speculate on the likelihood of the United States or Israel attacking Iran. Rather, I just want to point out how strange it is for Americans to be so fascinated by ninja women in Iran at this time. Or maybe it’s not strange at all. Maybe it’s all too predictable. If we read the signs, the contradictory double meaning of the veil says a lot about America’s confused and troubled relationship with this other country. For the western fantasy — the kind of fantasy we see in James Bond movies — the hijab is both a symbol of power and of weakness. It is the image of the woman he desires and the image of the woman he is supposed to scorn or pity, the woman he is both scared of and wants to save. And if you think I’m exaggerating, see this really gross website forum where American men have already posted lewd comments about either submitting to sexy Iranian women or dominating them. In conclusion, the American interpretation of the ninja woman in Iran and the sign of the veil is rife with all sorts of ideological contradictions. One can understand why American pop culture would have so much fun entertaining this contradictory fantasy, but let us hope that our political leaders don’t think and act like adolescent James Bonds.

February 20, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Business Writing and a Theory of the Postmodern Subject

I created this class at my school on business writing, which to be honest has been a bit difficult. My areas of expertise are cultural theory, globalization, early American literature, and transatlantic eighteenth-century literature, including the Caribbean, and when I’m not doing those things, I’m usually learning about the Oromo people of Ethiopia. Notice that what’s not included in that list is business writing or any sort of writing pedagogy. But at small liberal arts colleges it’s rare to find a faculty who would include that on his or her list of specialities. Anyhow, the idea for my course is to blend a lot of the standard elements of a business writing class that are taught at most large public universities with the humanistic, critical inquiry and ethical questions that are valued at the small liberal arts Catholic college where I work. Since I don’t know of any textbook that does this, one of my former students and I have begun creating an on-line textbook using a wiki. The wiki allows us to constantly revise and update the text to respond to changes in the world, as well as changes in the teacher. In other words, if a new technology comes along, we can just add that. And if someone else is going to teach the class and has a different way of looking at things, then he or she can just go into the wiki and rewrite some of the text accordingly. Students can also contribute to it.

So, in my blog today (since only people registered for the class can see the wiki textbook), I wanted to put something I wrote for the textbook out there in the public to see what kind of feedback I might get. Also, it kind of relates to the concept of the “subject” that we just covered in my other class, the intro to theory for which I created this blog in the first place. Below is a section from the wiki textbook. To give you some background, the five units for the book are 1) Getting a Job, 2) Internal Communication, 3) Networking and Collaboration, 4) External Communication, and 5) Presentations and Visuals. Currently, we are in the middle of the second unit on internal communication, which includes memos, e-mails, reports, and proposals. For each unit, the textbook has three sections. The first section is simply practical how-to stuff, like what does a memo or a progress report typically look like. The second section is a more theoretically reflective section, which we believe is necessary so that students can actually think about what they’re doing and respond intelligently to changing circumstances; in other words, this is where the humanistic, critical inquiry valued by liberal arts colleges comes into play. And the third section is a bunch of activities and assignments. So, below is what I just wrote today for the “theory” section of unit two.

Diversity, Power, and Democratic Communication

Whether you’re working for a large company, a small business, a government office, or a non-governmental organization, internal communication is what makes the place run. We can use the metaphor of a human body to describe the workplace. Without good communication, the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the right leg might be walking in a different direction than the left. You can imagine a humorous cartoon version of this. Worst case scenario is the workplace stumbles and falls or gives itself a bloody nose.

Unlike the sort of writing that takes place in the university or the public sphere, writing in the private sphere is subject to a range of demands, expectations, and sources of information. We might think of the scholarly writing or the kind of writing that appears in magazines such as Harper’s and The Atlantic as “transcendental” writing. Such writing assumes an ethically pure position of privilege above the nitty-gritty of the work-a-day world. This is the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s notion of “enlightenment” where the writer or critic positions himself or herself outside the system that he or she critiques. Such a critique is fundamental for society, which is why the institutions that support that position, such as newspapers and the “public sphere” (theorized by Jurgen Habermas), play such an important role in our society. However, writing in the workplace is different in that it puts the individual within a web of demands and expectations that he or she must negotiate.

Furthermore, just as we learned in the “Getting a Job” unit for this course, each and every place has its own unique culture, norms, values, procedures, and organizational structure. Some places may be rigidly formal, others casual. Some may emphasize a hierarchical chain of command and clear lines of authority, and others may value a more open-ended, democratic environment. For some jobs, you may work autonomously much of the time, but in others you may be mostly working as a team or under the direction of someone else. And some organizations may seem like they value diversity and democratic decision-making when in fact they are really top-down, autocratic, and resistant to genuine, positive change.

It is now a commonplace idea held by many theorists and business leaders that companies increasingly value diversity and horizontal communication. Why is this so? What was wrong with the old model, where the boss told the employees what to do, and they did it. After all, the military has a clear hierarchical, vertical, and centralized chain of command, and what’s wrong with that? Actually, today’s military has also been affected by the “postmodern condition” and have become more horizontal and decentered. The reason why companies discovered the benefits of democratic decision-making and the important role of diversity is the same reason why nation states did. What is sarcastically called the “old boys network” at the top (or, we might say, the “rich white men”) didn’t always make the right decisions. They were less innovative and responsive to changing conditions on the ground, and were subject to something called “group think.” Group think is when everyone gradually thinks the same way even if that way turns out to be really, really wrong. One Nobel-prize winning economist (Paul Krugman) famously compared stock brokers to lemmings who just followed the leader off a cliff and didn’t think for themselves. Catastrophic events like the Thai-bhat crash in 1997 and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 were the result of “group think”, when thousands of individuals engaged in unwise and unethical behavior. Hence, diversity and democratic decision-making are not just noble principles for a just and equitable society. They are also perceived to be the foundation of good business and a necessary antidote to the evils of the old boys network. Free and open communication are essential for a competitive, innovative organization. Moreover, our postmodern appreciation for horizontal communication not so coincidentally happens alongside many new communications technologies such as the internet and e-mail that allow information to flow in all sorts of directions with the touch of a button. New communications technologies create new organizational structures and forms of internal communication, even though traces of the old forms remain. (For instance, e-mail basically follows the conventions of the old-fashioned memo, except in a quicker, more casual form and more easily sent to a diverse array of people.) Likewise, college professors began to celebrate the internet and such on-line communication technologies as course-management software (e.g., Moodle), chat rooms, and social networking sites as ways to “decenter” and “democratize” the classroom, appreciate the knowledge students bring to the class, include a wider diversity of student voices, etc., etc., etc.

However, as theorists as different from each other as Stanley Deetz, Slavoj Zizek, and Gilles Deleuze have argued, much of this “new-age” business model that seems to liberate workers from the old power structure actually just creates a new and even more complex demand. Workers must be more adaptive, more agile, and more responsive to changing conditions. This new demand instills within the postmodern labor force an ever-present anxiety, requiring constant personal development. Moreover, diversity and democratic decision-making are valued only up to a point — so far as they continue to serve the basic power structure. As the philosopher Deleuze argued in a brief and somewhat famous essay “Society of Control” (in which he responds to Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish), what makes the new form of control so challenging is precisely the ways in which the chain of command is no longer simple, linear, and top-down. Rather, it is more like a web of relations in which the protocols for communication are situational and ad hoc. As a result, the roles we play and faces we wear (like professional masks) are also more complicated. Organizations focus on team building and blur the boundaries between “work” and “leisure” in order to boost morale and improve the lines of communication among all the different members of the organization. This is believed to improve productivity and efficiency. However, the “casualization” of the workplace doesn’t result in more liberated labor. Just because we now wear jeans on “casual Fridays” and go river-rafting with the boss does not mean that we are getting a better paycheck or that we are really our boss’s equal or buddy. Corporations increasingly give all of their employees the formal title of “assistant manager” or even “manager” when in fact they are not really managers at all — just paper pushing, number crunching assistants, as the TV show The Office famously mocks. Both the British and American versions of this show are symptomatic of the anxieties employees feel in the workplace where the chain of command is ambiguous and the democratization of communication lacks clarity.

In fact, the casualization of the workplace and the multi-directionality and diversification of communications technologies means that the demand for effective workplace communication is all the more intense. In essence, the workplace remains rife with ideological contradictions and dilemmas, in which workers are subject to conflicting expectations and demands. How to negotiate those conflicting expectations and demands and become a more ethical person is the reason why a course such as English 315 “Business Writing, Civil Society, and Professional Careers” exists. At the end of the day, however, this sort of writing is an experimental writing, not a following of strict formulas. The more you do it, the more you practice this sort of communication, and the more you think about the choices you make and how you perform different roles at different times, the more this complex web of relations will make sense.

February 19, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Why Arts?: Ideology and the Dangerous Game of Cultural Politics, a rant

Many career services centers at colleges around the country like to show their students the results of a nation-wide survey of employers and business leaders. The survey question is simple. What skills do they want from college graduates? The answer won’t surprise you; number one is the ability to communicate (write, read, talk, listen, etc.). Also on the list are flexibility and creativity. In addition, these days, more and more, following the crash of our economy due to the unethical practices of a short-sighted corporate sector (including accounting scandals, investment scandals, etc., etc., too numerous to bother listing here), employers also value critical thinking and ethics. They see these skills as necessary for any professional labor force that is adaptive, innovative, reliable, and trustworthy. These skills are all the more necessary in an economy that is increasingly affected by globalization, increasingly dominated by information technologies, and increasingly protean — changing all the time in ways that are exciting and productive, but also unstable and a bit frightening. And what I hope is obvious to anyone reading this blog, these are precisely the skills one learns in the disciplines of the humanities such as philosophy, history, etc., and especially my own discipline of literature. This is why all students at almost all colleges and universities are required to take two or three classes in writing and other communication skills, one or two classes in cultural diversity, and sometimes even one or two courses in ethics. All standard stuff. Hence, one might think that if a university administration were going to support any discipline in this supposedly creative, global, social-networking age, one would want to support the departments of world literature and creative writing. But curiously, no. Shortly following the sad news of Joe Paterno’s death, which received a lot of media attention, Penn State’s English department (where I got my own Ph.D.) released some other sad news that received no media attention at all. Due to state budget cuts, the department will no longer be admitting graduate students to its highly ranked M.F.A. program in creative writing. This depressing event is not a unique one. Nation-wide, at the same time that universities have begun to funnel dollars into new, adventuresome “global” centers and initiatives, their programs in world literature (where the study of  “global” culture has been going on for two centuries) has suffered cuts.

There would seem to be an ideological contradiction here. What’s going on? How might we demystify this mystery?

And it’s not just America. Celebrated Ugandan author Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish, recently responded to some petty politicians in her home country who disparaged the worth of the arts. In her recent essay “Why Art?” published just a few days ago (almost at exactly the same time that Penn State’s English department made its decision), she describes her experience watching modern dance to explain the value of the arts. She explains that creativity invigorates new ways of seeing the world, that it enables individuals to ethically confront the ways that the complex vicissitudes of the world pull us apart, that it enables us to understand and relate to people from other cultures that we may not understand, and that it helps us value our own traditions and ways of life at the same time that we adapt to the new cultures of a rapidly changing world. All important things, few would disagree, but it’s hard to find a public university in Africa that supports programs in the arts. One of the legacies of European colonialism is its emphasis on the technical skills that the colonizer needed the colonized to learn in order to build the roads and administer its laws, but Europe kept the development of the arts for itself.

One might wonder whether governments and university administrators have simply gone stupid over night — while the rest of us were all sleeping — and for some unknown reason no longer realize the importance of the programs that foster the very skills they say they want fostered. However, this is not the case. To demystify this apparent ideological contradiction, we can play a simple game of “follow the money.” In fact, governments care about the arts quite a bit, and not always in the most honest of ways. Looking back in history, the most infamous and surprising example of this was discovered when some documents from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States were declassified; it turns out that the CIA was aggressively funding avant garde art. Holy cow! What does painting and poetry have to do with spying and national security? They did so for two reasons. First, in order to fight the culture war against the Soviet Union, America had to appear more free, more innovative… more better, or something. But they weren’t funding all kinds of art, and not even all kinds of avant garde postmodern art. They were promoting a specific variety of art and specific artists in order to de-politicize it and marginalize writers and painters who were critical of U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, the United States has also been very aggressive in promoting its culture industry around the world (one of its biggest and most lucrative exports), not just the ability of Hollywood to market its films abroad but also the many small programs that are officially independent and non-governmental but receive most of their funding from the federal government program USAID. So, the government does care about the arts, and it does care about culture, and it does care about globalization, creativity, writing, etc., after all.  Just not the sort of art and culture that might lead young people to question the ideology of a government corrupted by Wall Street and the military industrial complex.

(A side note on the military industrial complex and where the money for large research universities comes from. Public and private universities receive millions of dollars from the federal government for the research and development of new military technologies and new pills. In other words, new ways to keep the population alive and medicated while refining instruments of death, all paid for by public taxes that serve corporate interests. Many of the new military technologies are actually worthless, but they keep the corporations who make them (and their stock holders) financially afloat. It’s a curious and expensive form of corporate welfare. Meanwhile, as for the state taxes that are supposed to pay for all the other, more peaceful programs that all undergraduates need in order to obtain the skills that employers actually want — these get cut, and the politicians explain that they have to cut them, so that they can cut taxes, so that individuals can go buy more crap at the store, indulging the commodity fetish, because our economy is based on the never-ending growth of the crap merchants.)

Responding to all the hype in the mainstream media and all the highly ideological incentives that politicians build into the system, schools are feeling the pressure to create new centers on global leadership, intercultural competency, and all the things that literature departments used to do, but now the administrators can do them the way its corporate-minded board wants them to, without having to deal with all those pesky subversives. In other words, in a classic political and rhetorical move, universities such as Penn State are co-opting the values of literature departments (values such as good writing, creativity, innovation, and cultural awareness), but changing the meaning and practice of these valued skills by shifting them to other centers that are more beholden to the short-sighted agendas of stock holders and speculators.

How to fight back? Unlike the military industrial complex, who wage their battles through instruments of death and by killing off (metaphorically speaking) the academic programs that foster creative, critical, and ethical thought, we fight back by creating. It is a hard battle, because the media (who, by the way, is sometimes owned by the same company that makes the death stuff) is constantly telling our students and the parents of our students that nobody with a degree in literature, philosophy, or history can find a job. We might worry that the prophecies of the network news pundits might be self-fulfilling. In other words, even though the pundits are flat-out lying or just plain ignorant of the facts on the ground, the lie will influence behavior if it is believed, and the new behavior creates a new reality. My own fear is that their lie might become the truth simply because they have the power to make it true, the way a rumor spreads like a virus, changing the behavior of everyone who hears it. But, given the set of skills demanded by employers, this is a battle we always inevitably win, even in the midst of our darkest hour, because the world needs creators; it doesn’t need killers. As the CIA case shows, governments are more successful at winning friends and influencing people through skillful communication and the arts than by dropping bombs and kicking in doors.

Fact is, they need us. This is our power. But we also need them. Hence, the dilemmas of the creative spirit. So, if they co-opt our values because they need our skills (as the case of the CIA demonstrates), then should our strategy be to co-opt their centers of power? How might we imagine such a co-option? If “global” and “information technology” is where they now want to put the money, even though some of the people making the decisions about that money may not really understand what the word global means or how information technology works, should we simply co-opt their center and make it smarter and more ethical than it might otherwise have been. (And, by-the-by, co-opting their ideology of the zero-sum game of the job market is exactly the rhetorical tactic of this blog post, as you may have noticed in the first paragraph.) In doing so, we enter the dangerous game of cultural politics, where meaning and ideological effects are beyond the intention of their authors.

February 8, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kermit and Other Bloggery

Recently, on Theory Teacher’s sister blog “Film and Media,” I wrote about the recent YouTube video of Kermit and Miss Piggy discussing Fox News’s attack of Disney’s movie The Muppets. But as that post also employs Stanley Fish’s theoretical concept of “intepretive communities,” it certainly relates to my class on literary and cultural theory. You can check that out [here]. Below is the video that I discuss. Meanwhile, I have created a third blog [here] devoted to the idea of Atlantic Literature — a subject I have substantial scholarly interest in, enough, perhaps, to warrant a separate blog.


February 3, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment