The Humanities are Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself

Here’s an idea: let’s put a one year moratorium on any “death of the humanities” articles, either by outsiders or insiders. I want every academic or employee of a university out there to agree not to participate in this seemingly weekly emerging body of texts. I want senior academics to stop telling people that they would never do what they did if they had to do it now. I want newspapers to stop printing them as a way of fueling a flame with questionable statistics and highly generalized hypotheses based on personal experience. And I want the headlines of these articles to be less provocative and more honest; let’s stay away from “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” After a year, instead of coming to quick judgments, we’ll talk about what we’ve learned.


No? Oh whatever, just read this:


The price of the New York Times Sunday edition to anyone who can tell me what this means: “Instead, now it feels as though people have retreated to tiny cabins in the bowels of the ship, from which they peep out on a small fragment of what may be a coastline or a fog bank or the back of a spouting whale. ” I’ve missed the point of this article, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean it deserved to be written and published.

In a misguided attempt to be helpful, the Atlantic has posted this article:


And how have they come to this conclusion?

That’s right, a wavy-line chart! See, the humanities were really bad in 1985. I imagine this is largely due to Perestroika,  the misplaced excitement surrounding Magic Johnson’s stellar play in the 1985 NBA Finals, and also the fact that New Historicism bummed a lot of people out for a few years. I mean, Stephen Greenblatt couldn’t even talk to that guy on the airplane. (“What was wrong with old historicism?” said a despondent 1985 Yale undergrad in between sips of New Coke. before changing his major to International Business.  And that kid grew up to be Julian Assange.) As the chart indicates, the rise of the humanities is directly linked with the American obsession with Australian culture upon the release of Crocodile Dundee.  And it flatlined around 1996, because (as scholars have noted) that’s when I graduated high school. I continue to contend that this is unrelated.

Y’all, we’ve got to stop fighting quantitative research with other quantitative research. Even the salvos intended to defend the humanities are trafficking in statistics and grim stories about students who probably weren’t going to be English majors anyway. We have to change the tenor of this discussion.

Faintly Bouncing Around the Room

I posted this on Facebook so I’m carrying it over here:

On Grantland, Steven Hyden wrote an interesting piece about the value and endurance of Phish. If you asked me in 1996, I would have probably said Phish was my favorite active band besides Weezer, and I’m only kind of embarrassed by that. As I’ve often said, if I were savvy enough to find about Superchunk and their like, my life would be drastically different now. If I knew who Leonard Cohen was in 1993, I might be dead.

But in 1996, I spent 80 dollars on a Phish live import in which they played the Beatles White Album. I don’t know what Phish has done since 1998; I wasn’t even aware that they had broken up and gotten back together. I only saw them live once, and thought it was just okay. I haven’t heard a Phish song since STORY OF A GHOST (which I didn’t like). But there are three Phish albums that I still actively listen to: JUNTA, HOIST, and RIFT (my favorite). And while I fall into the category of having my favorite Phish songs be their most conventionally listenable songs, I think these five songs are good on their own merits:


Also, do remember that if you buy and pretend to like Suicide’s SUICIDE, it makes up for any number of musical crimes. Any time somebody says, “hey don’t you have every Phish album on cassette tape, including two tapes of “A Live One” because it wouldn’t fit on one tape?”. . . just say, “Frankie Teardrop changed my life.”


Rhetorical and Serious Men in GAME OF THRONES


One of my favorite critical insights to introduce into British Literature surveys comes from Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence. I will quote Lanham here as he is discussed in Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally – where I first learned of Lanham’s work. Basically, in the opening pages, Lanham describes early modern disagreements between foundational/orthodox thinking and what he calls “rhetorical” revision. From this, there are two archetypes – the serious man and the rhetorical man. Here’s the serious man:


In other words, the serious man is firmly bound to an orthodox tradition. He believes in a single reality that is realized in a cultural vision. Reality is “out there,” and everything we create and do should accurately, almost mimetically honor that reality. When I teach early English literature, the ultimate serious man is Gawaine: fiercely bound to a rigid code of honor that he can’t keep, even as he continues to pursue a heroic quest despite his failures. (I’d love to hear an argument against this).  By contrast, here is the rhetorical man:


A much more complicated figure, and one who challenges the stability that the “Serious” man claims he lives by. You could argue that Shakespeare’s Henry V rejects the rhetorical in the form of Falstaff to become serious, or you could contend that the very act of becoming a serious man is rhetorical. But a more obvious example of the rhetorical man is Iago: gifted in manipulating social scenarios to “what is useful.” The rhetorical man is Machiavellian, and not in the sense that he likes to poison rivers. The rhetorical man is Machiavellian in that he resists the governance of “fortune” and seeks to create his own through virtu.

For GAME OF THRONES fans, the comparison is obvious. The Starks are serious while the Lannisters are rhetorical. In last week’s stunning episode, the Starks depend on and constantly invoke a stable order that the Lannisters use only to their advantage. It’s why Robb Stark is so boring – even when he defies a command, he does it for the right reason. But Tyrion Lannister is rhetorical to the core – it’s what makes he’s still alive. Where that puts everyone else (Jon Snow? Bram? Arya? Joffrey? All of the other people whose names I can’t remember) . . . I’ll leave up to you.