Literature

Coming soon: If (a novel)

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I’ve been helping to write the promotional materials for If (a novel by the author(s) of this blog) over the last few days, and I thought I’d post some of the materials here in case anyone would be curious. If will be coming out later this year from Livingston Press, a refuge of the humanities in the fine state of Alabama:

In If, I used an experimental form where the reader makes a choice at the end of every chapter, and this choice determines the course of the novel. A lot of people probably remember reading adventure books like this when they were children, and part of my goal was to play with that association — to start the book as a children’s book, and slowly have it transform into different things. I wanted to show the metamorphosis from youth to adulthood by making the book change from the kind of book that a middle schooler might read to the kinds of books and poems we read as adults.

Instead of following a single narrative, the chapters in If branch out from one another. Why did you take this approach?

I wanted to write a novel where not only the characters and the setting change, but the book itself goes through metamorphoses. The style changes, the shapes of the paragraphs change, sometimes the genre. My sense is that a boy’s lived experience at the age of twelve is so different from his life at the age of twenty, it’s more like the difference between two novels than like the differences inside of most novels. If tries to capture that.

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Politics

Guest post: The sharing economy as strip mining

A reader emailed me with a connection between the Reagan Era and the New Deal, one I had never considered before. His argument leads to a critical view of “the sharing economy” associated with firms like Airbnb, Taskrabbit, and Uber:

I’ve said … that the post-deregulation American economy resembled strip mining.  Just as [Secretary of the Interior under Reagan] James Watt‘s dispensationalist/eschatological worldview led to the idea that we should be maximizing resource extraction from our lands because there would be no need for them after the Rapture, the plutocratic mind saw the Reagan administration as offering an opportunity to finally harvest the bounty that the New Deal state had been nurturing for decades.  So, for example, the public trust in fair financial markets could be exploited, just as a seam of coal, by a peddler of junk bonds; the gains would be privatized, and the only thing that would ultimately be lost was the public’s trust in the fairness of the system, which (after all) belonged to no one person.

It’s a “tragedy of the commons” story, really, except in this case the commons was the middle class and the economy that had been created through regulation–of labor relations, of financial markets, of consumer safety, of environmental protections, of food and drug safety, and so on.  And, really, that’s what 2008 marked the culmination of–the final extraction of value from the economic system by the plutocrats, at the expense of the system; our economy would shrink, or not grow, but the fortunes of a few people would rise.  A law and economics type might point to it as not so different from the worst of the leveraged buyouts of the 80s–a takeover, followed by profit-taking, followed by the deployment of golden parachutes, followed by the deluge.

Which brings me to “the sharing economy”, which promises to use technology to lower transaction costs to usher in a more liquid world in which more people can participate in voluntary transactions that should make everyone better off.

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Literature, Politics

A third defense of the humanities

In recent posts, I’ve been trying to imagine defenses of the humanities that answer the question: what can the humanities do that the sciences can’t?

So here’s my third idea. On the one hand, it’s the first of my defenses that’s consistent with the usual sophisticated humanities scholar’s view that the aesthetic establishes its own values, that art is an end in itself, that “poetry makes nothing happen” (in Auden’s words) and shouldn’t be required to make anything happen — even wisdom or the broadening of the soul.

On the other hand, this defense is still likely to infuriate sophisticated humanities scholars, because it’s based on an appeal to national pride.

As is often the case, Helen Vendler got there before me:

In the future, will the United States be remembered with admiration? Will we be thanked for our stock market and its investors? For our wars and their consequences? … Future cultures will be grateful to us for many aspects of scientific discovery, and for our progress (such as it has been) toward more humane laws. … But science, the law, and even ethics are fields in motion, constantly surpassing themselves. To future generations our medicine will seem primitive, our laws backward, even our ethical convictions narrow.

The same cannot be said of our art.

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Literature, Politics

STEM education, imagination, and political failures

One reader responds to my recent attempts to defend the humanities in terms that those with power over universities might find persuasive:

One thing that strikes me [about arguments to promote STEM education] is that we’ve fallen into the trap of promoting one story so hard that we’ve become blind to its limitations.  What do I mean?  STEM education is valuable to our economy–it promises to develop the technical skill that our workers need to be competitive when unskilled labor is increasingly automated.  But everyone got so caught up in promoting that story that we lost sight of its limits–that the greatest problems facing us today are not engineering problems.

Yes, it’s true that breakthroughs in science and engineering will be required if we’re going to mitigate (forget stopping) the effects of global climate change.  But we wouldn’t need those breakthroughs (at least, not as much as we do now) if we’d been able to reach the political agreement that would have been required to implement a policy solution years ago. I hate to repeat a cliche, but the problems of the last thirty years have been failures of the imagination, rather than failures of engineering and implementation–e.g., the slow reaction to the HIV outbreak in the gay community, the consequences of deregulation, the reaction to 9/11, the challenges of creating a social safety net in an increasingly tribal society…

So if the humanities require a defense, part of that defense is certainly that a democracy is not sustained on STEM alone–that a competitive economy on a warming planet makes us nothing more than the tribe that’s putting up the most moai on Easter Island.  … [T]he very imagination that a democracy needs to survive is what a liberal education–a critical component of which is the humanities–is supposed to foster.

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Literature

A defense of a defense of the humanities

A big thank you, first of all, to JK at The Kugelmass Episodes for his characteristically generous shout-out to this blog.

Let me start by saying I find very little to blogfight about in JK’s post. I agree with what I take to be his central point, that the reading and writing of literature can have value as an end in itself, as a meaningful form of life. To the extent that we have a disagreement, it’s a disagreement about whether, and in what ways, the humanities need defending today:

[I]n a sense, to engage the question at all, particularly with that sort of breathless urgency that Martha Nussbaum (etc.) employs, is to automatically lose. It’s like arguing with Creationists. To even hold a debate with Creationists legitimizes their attempt to substitute religious ideology for scientific theory. Similarly, to act like the humanities are on trial — even if one defends them brilliantly – automatically sets them apart from, and below, all other academic disciplines.

At the same time, a good explanation of the humanities has some value independent of its unknowable “success” as a defense. It is, for a worthwhile moment, a defense of the humanities within one’s own life, as well as in the larger world.

But aren’t the humanities on trial — today, as we write, in university administration offices across the country — in a way that the sciences and engineering are not?

Based on all I’ve heard and read, the humanities, and especially the close study of difficult works of literature and philosophy, are at risk of being sidelined in the university and in American life generally. Fewer professors, fewer classes, fewer majors, less attention to serious literary study as opposed to rhetoric and composition — above all, less money, which ultimately causes many of the other problems. Outside of the university, fewer readers per capita willing to put in the time and concentration to make sense of difficult literature. Maybe this isn’t a serious problem. Maybe the world will be fine or even better if serious literary study is soon largely relegated to private book clubs run by composition teachers to keep the flame alive.

But my posts start from the assumption that this is not the ideal future.

On the other hand, even if we agreed about this — that the humanities are, in fact, on trial, and that this is a bad thing — it might still be argued that it’s counterproductive to try to defend the humanities, just like it’s counterproductive to try to defend the findings of natural science against Creationists.

I don’t think that’s right. There are at least two reasons why it’s almost always okay to ignore Creationists rather than debating the merits of their claims. First, they have relatively little power. Debates with Creationists generally give them more power than they had before. Non-creationists are like the popular incumbent in the mayoral race, and Creationists are like the fringe candidate. By engaging with the fringe candidate, the popular incumbent legitimates her and gives her attention. Second, Creationists are almost by definition unpersuadable through debate based on shared, non-religious premises — so there’s little point in debating them with the hope of changing their minds.

Neither of these things are true of those who will decide the outcome of the trial of the humanities. They have power — for example, they are the university administrators making decisions about money and jobs — and they are potentially susceptible to arguments based on premises they share with us, at least to a degree that a Creationist is not.

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