Friday, June 29, 2007

The Value of Living an Unproductive Life

Here is a beautiful article by William Deresiewicz about intellectual love on campus. He makes a number of good points here, some of which I'll likely come back to. One is what he sees as a new stereotype of the humanities professor as lecherous, washed-up, alcoholic, vain, and flaccid. He connects this to economic issues at one point.

''Other received ideas come into play here: “those who can’t do, teach”; the critic as eunuch or parasite; the ineffective intellectual; tenure as a system for enshrining mediocrity. It may be simply because academics don’t pursue wealth, power, or, to any real extent, fame that they are vulnerable to such accusations. In our culture, the willingness to settle for something less than these Luciferian goals is itself seen as emasculating.''

Indeed I've noticed a widespread opinion that what we do in the humanities is useless and that we're rather ''quaint losers'' as a shrewd commenter at IHE puts it. Of course, this perception is true, on the face of it. Most people have to get up every morning and work hard to produce things. They might hate their jobs, or maybe not, but nevertheless they produce something, even if only wealth. It might have been miserable to build the pyramids, but the results were magnificent.

In contrast, academics produce very little, if they're worthwhile. Today, I arose from my ''chambers'' and travelled to the library to read and take notes for eight hours. And then I returned home to read some more. After I've finished two or three years of this activity, or more, I will have produced a dissertation that, quite likely, no more than twenty people will ever read. In my life, I will be read by a handful of specialists, with any luck. What we do is secret.

Our sacred duty, of course, is teaching. Here as well the fruits of our labor are perversely slow to reveal themselves. We scatter seeds. Perhaps one day years from now one of the students who endured our courses will remember some idea or pleasure that they gained from it and reflect on that, but to expect more is probably hubris. Of course, to someone who has to produce things for a living, we might well seem both worthless and arrogant- like cultural mandarins. So be it. Man does not live by bread alone and civilizations do not survive by pyramids alone.

Here I choose my words carefully. I indeed believe that we serve a conservative function in society- regardless of our political beliefs- because we serve as stewards of the knowledge, both sacred and secular, of human civilizations. Not only do we transmit the culture- in the highest sense of that word- of civilizations; we also transmit the demanding ideals that all true culture conveys. We are cultural conservatives in the best sense of the term.

Of course, there are some humanities scholars who will strongly disagree with this claim (although less than one might expect according to Deresiewicz). Some will say that culture in this sense has served to put a gloss on power; that capitalism has used such commanding ideals to keep control over subaltern groups; that culture in this sense serves to keep those pyramid builders oblivious to their own servitude, or to mask that servitude with high flown rhetoric. Some, perversely, argue that we serve as handmaidens to pouvoir, and that we should instead work to undermine the culture that we have stewardship of, and unmask systems of oppression due to class, race, and gender more generally, and capitalism more specifically. We can call these people the prohibitionists.

However, I disagree with the prohibitionists for two reasons. In the first place, having grown up in a city Washington, DC of those economic and political elites, I've long been struck by the fact that global capitalism and radical academia share a belief about culture- that the limitations that it imposes are something that 'intelligent people' will overcome. Therefore, the ideas of culture- the unique unrepeatability of every life, the demands placed by the soul upon the body, the obligation to the past, inwardness, the dependence of the individual upon the larger community- are so clearly at odds with the ways that global capital works and thinks that taking high culture seriously can put the brakes on such a life. No true cultural conservative is an apologist or cheerleader for capitalism, although they might be more critical of what they see as alternatives to it.

In the second place, the desire to transform ourselves from disinterested scholars to activists or social workers conveys the same need to ''do something worthwhile'' that sees the cultivation and human being as somehow hubristic, at least for us. And yet, the development of this inwardness- cultivated not through the adoption of ''fundamental truths'' or ''right ideas'', which are elusive anyway and cannot be forced, but simply through being led to worthwhile questions- is the precondition for a meaningful life and hence any action. Not to be told what to believe, but what to consider. This is our entitlement as free beings.

So, through our 'worthlessness' we defend our right live a life that is not justified by producing anything but by our own being. If more academics cared about race, class, and gender (and not as mere abstractions) they would seek to democratize this life both by finding more ways to teach for free and by defending the right of all not so much to an inner life, but to have recognized the value of that inner life, and every inner life.

The conviction that the pyramid builders and other productive classes would not be helped, or would somehow be manipulated, by conveying to them those elevating ideas and questions that the elite classes have largely lost interest in is simply another way of saying ''Get back to work''

And so while I think it is important for academics to recognize the importance of labor (which has been all-but-forgotten in this country) I also think that we must stress that there is good and value in the unproductive life as well.


StyleyGeek said...

I think there is a counterpart to the "humanities as useless" stereotype in the sciences, and that is the fixation of the general public (and of some academics and funding bodies who should know better) on science that produces technological consumer playthings. If you want to do groundbreaking fundamental mathematical physics, for example, you sure as hell better be able to argue that it might lead to a breakthrough in new computer technology, or similar, otherwise there's no chance anyone will give you any respect or money.

Holly said...

This is true of the fine arts, as well, it's a very defensive field to be in. If one believes the dominant attitude, what indeed IS the point of people who "only" paint, draw, sculpt, sing, dance, whatever? Surely all those resources would be better spent if the aspirants would simply surrender now, and go work at the mall. (Which might have the secondary benefit of "fixing" the illegal immigration problem?)

And yet, I find myself asking why, at the university where I got my essentially worthless undergrad degree, the football coach got paid (a LOT) more than the president of the university. Football is at least as useless as the arts, by any measure except cardio-vascular fitness.

If a fine arts major doesn't come rocketing out of the program with a gallery contract, or acceptance to a bigger/better grad program, or some small taste of fame, it is generally assumed that person is a write-off as far as actually being a creative professional. If you aren't already getting paid to make art the minute you walk away with your diploma in your hand, you are an irredeemably lost cause--the professors who so recently were encouraging your talent and skill now shake their heads and cluck their tongues. There is no long term view, that this is a life-work, that it is a process, rather than a product, that a bunch of 24 year old kids might not yet be at the peak of their abilities. (Which, for the record, I sincerely hope is not the case!)

Rufus said...

Stylegeek: Wow, that's a great point! I was listening to a mathematical physicist on the radio discussing an experiment with a particle accelerator that had been in the works for about three years. The reporter asked him if he wanted the results to correspond to their predictions. His response was something like: "Well, no actually, because if the results are totally unexpected, we get to scrap our equations and work on totally new ones." And then he added, "But, sadly, the people funding the experiment don't feel the same way..."

Rufus said...

Holly- that's right, isn't it? Almost none of those kids go on to play professional sports and the programs often cost the universities quite a bit more than they bring in. Actually, one of the reasons that I'm looking to teach in Canada is that their universities are more sensible about athletics programs.