Robert Uren - Manifesto

Humanities and social science departments ought to give Alan Sokal honorary degrees in postmodern thought.

Because that was funny and appropriately meaningless. If Sokal's original essay, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, strikes some readers as humorously non-sensical because it parodically perform a bizarrely incoherent view of the world (insofar as the view may be deciphered from the bizarrely incoherent prose), then how funny is it to read subsequent writers, sympathetic to Sokal's shenanigans, attempt to refute postmodernist thought by their own rules, in their own languages. Witness Paul Boghossian in the Times Literary Supplement in 1996: “[T]he postmodernist needs to hold that his views are better than his opponent's; otherwise what's to recommend them?” Well, Paul, nothing. So? Bogho's like the star quarterback in art class who tells a painter that those brush strokes will never score a touchdown.

Funnier still is that Sokal would take such a postmodernist approach to argumentation. Rather than lay out a structured and logical critique of a well-defined subject called postmodern theory, Sokal performs a subversive, indirect, polyvalent, ironic interaction with his subject. It turns out that when we hold conversations about human reality – when we do more (or less, whatever) than catalog evident facts – we can achieve a great deal by exploring postmodern discursive practices wherein we foreground the representational fluidity of language. Let's own Sokal and his endeavor to use postmodern strategies to sell books about how terrible it is that postmodern thinkers sell books. Let's own him because he's belonged to us from the moment he mattered.

This is worth doing because we need to get over our low self-esteem. Sokal, obviously one of our own, picked on us fifteen years ago and we're still looking for ways to tell him “nuh uh.” We're like the ten year old who, after her big sister makes fun of her for still playing with dolls, tucks away her Barbie and pretends to like Beyoncé. And this big sister made fun of us by joining our play and speaking through Ken to say we're babies. We turn our students into test subjects and structure our research around other local, observable phenomena so that we can posture as empiricists. Empiricists? We – and I mean people, but humanists, too – share a tenuous relationship with information. I buckle my seatbelt for every drive even though the facts show that I will drive tens of thousands of miles without needing it. I eat pizza even though the facts show that I need far fewer calories. I love people. What the hell kind of sense does that make? (Jump to the middle of this David Brooks article to see some examples of human irrationality documented by Kahneman and Tversky.) Research into my neurology might correlate that behavior with certain brain patterns. That's interesting. But I still need to live with fear and joy, sadness and passion. And I need people who care about more than my synapses to help me do that. I need us. I need more Sokals in the world mixing it up, pulling pranks, instigating conversations about theories of inquiry and intellectual conduct instead of digging around for facts. Cheers, Alan, you cheeky pomo bastard.

Humanists and social scientists ought to author discourses.

Examining the way that the author has functioned – as an author-function – in the history of Western letters, Foucault identifies a class of author whom he labels “founders of discursivity” (911). Freud and Marx are Foucault's examples of writers who created discursive environments within which an entire branch of human inquiry can operate indefinitely toward neither proving nor disproving any particular strand of thought, but toward, rather, refining and redefining the parameters with which the foundational texts can be read and with which the ongoing discourse can take place. Professional academics ought to seek nothing less than orchestrating whole-cloth re-visionings of their fields. It is too easy to merely puppet Derrida on a linguistic point on the way toward deploying Bakhtin in a reading of X. I have read seventeen articles on the carnivalesque in satirical texts. It is boring. It was never going to be the right reading; it was only ever going to be a reading. No need to be the three-hundredth scholar to the table. Unless you're going to start a food fight.

This would mean that we would all fail. Fail by the current standards that measure scholars according to how much stuff they can get their names on and not according to how deeply or ambitiously or sincerely they attempt to reinvent the intellectual world. Like a labor strike, we'd have to organize, to get each other to stop. Stop publishing articles in which we historically situate the letters of obscure author Y or read her second novel for the othering of Z. Stop filling up CVs that are ripped off recipes for the blandest and driest of meals, just enough so that we can say we're chefs though the purer art is the gardener's.

We'd fail, too, to actually create new discursive worlds. It's much more likely that we could contribute substantially – rather than imperceptibly – to an existing field of thought. And who counts? Has Žižek done it through performative writings that seek to mingle previous thinkers in an idiosyncratic oeuvre? How have we come to regard success as the pinnacle of human activity? While humanists and social scientists never univocally endorsed post-structuralism or even structuralism, one senses that Western thought reached an abyss in high theory and had to let go a few hard-earned realities about language and subjectivity in order to manage anything at all. And what's been managed since can look pretty worthwhile. But remember that much of it – connecting discourses of power to liminal realities of the transgendered or multiracial, say – has been fruit of trees authored by those who aimed to revolutionize how humans think and write. And we find ourselves again where we belong, in the garden, where we can plant new heuristic labyrinths, new networks of metaphors. Who knows what'll grow, what we'll pluck, eat, share.

Artists ought to leave academia.

If colleges and universities cannot make space for artists who refuse to compromise deeply held beliefs, then fuck 'em.

Bureaucracy is anathema to art, just as it is anathema to love, morality, and liberation. When we give art over to its more powerful antithesis, what happens? Poets and writers in English departments check much of their soul at the door in exchange for steady pay checks or access to other poets and writers. Pursue the analogy: do we hand over our coats because it's warm inside? If we write because we believe that literature can provide a space for exploring what it is to be human in cultures that obfuscate our access to each other and ourselves, then we had better not conflate our works of art with our work in a system propped up by credit hours, money, CVs, transcripts, GPAs, money, program requirements, paperwork, standardized test scores, and money. It is no coincidence that hard facts are so often cold.

Perhaps such a place needs us most. Maybe we're the ones to tinker with the heater when the coat closet is locked; maybe we can smuggle in a couple of matches.

But they – that would be the “they” – will only let us reignite the pilot if we publish at their rate, if we serve on this very important committee that again reduces our human work to minutes and press releases and standardized curricula, if we plaster their webpages with our many and appropriately prestigious publications. And if we shake off that annoying cricket in our ear who says that we shouldn't even be publishing, that we should be composing off the page in embedded internet narratives that subvert the social order and disrupt mediation itself in a time of great propaganda – that we should tell true lies in electronic echo chambers. Or, if that's not what we're into, then if we write the kind of novel that not only gets picked up, but gets press. And if we co-conspire with elitist institutions that put students in massive debt so that we can have lighter course loads and thus more dazzling publication records. Can we be both … and? Both challenging, inventive, soulful artists and radical, humane, employed academics? Yeah, maybe. But if we can't, we ought to grab our coats, give them away on the streets, and busk naked and ablaze in a blizzard. Because the real world may be icy, but we write fires.

Professional humanists ought to live their work.

In 1976, Michael Stocker argued that ethical theories fail if they do not achieve “harmony” between what an agent believes is right and why an agent commits an act. Stocker terms a discord between value and motive “moral schizophrenia.” Humanist scholars probably ought to hold as values the immeasurables of human experiences. I mean that which cannot be measured, but I also mean, in part, those Buddhist immeasurables: love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. At work, humanists ought to think deeply and generously about themselves and others; their scholarship and teaching should emerge from – should be motivated by – a joyous love and compassion for all.

Every time a lit prof buys a BMW, a poacher bags a panda. Humanists have led the charge for human rights 1) by theorizing who and what a human can be and how a human can act, 2) by studying the texts and lives of the oppressed and their oppressors, and 3) by teaching. But outside of work, away from the books and students, humanists ought to have the courage to live according to the ideals of a discipline that is about more than theories, texts, and jobs. Humanists must resist the reduction of the human to the test subject in their studies, but must also resist participation in the massive machinery of human oppression that runs best when the gears are well-oiled with a quietism that is precisely antithetical to humanism itself.

More than merely hypocritical, it has to be spiritually ruinous to speak of liberatory pedagogy or cultural imperialism at work and then serve each other wines and cheeses in sunken-floored dens while Bose speakers lilt and we plug dates for tennis at the club into our smart phones. We've learned to problematize privilege in our publications and to enjoy it on the weekends. We work hard. We are our work and the work can be very good. And we volunteer and give. Here, our values drive our behavior. But are we living resistances to a cultural dominant that we disavow? Or are we something safer? We must take care not to send the message that even we who see its dominion most clearly cannot help but succumb to the utter power of capital.

The great humanist comedian Louis CK reminds us of the ethical implications of consumerist indulgence in a joke about the fact that he could trade his luxury car for a cheaper one and net thousands of dollars to combat world hunger: “I could save hundreds of people from dying of starvation with that money. And everyday I don’t do it. Everyday I make them die with my car.”

Comedians perform vice so that we might see how we, too, are vicious. Nobody should need that lesson less than academics in the humanities, whose values are virtuous. Humanists, harmonize.

Universities ought to value teaching over scholarship

Students are more than the tuition they pay and teaching should be more than a secondary concern for professional educators. I believe in the potential for our scholarly work to better our communities, locally and globally. I really do. However, we are given incredible opportunities to interact with real representatives of those communities each time we teach a class. We ought not take for granted the chances we have to invest fully in designing and enacting courses that empower people to develop as thinkers and, ultimately, citizens. That stuff we put on our syllabi turns out to be true. We do want students to improve their critical thinking, maybe even all the kinds of critical thinking we have in mind individually. We do want students to enhance their communication skills. And so many of us exhaust ourselves planning and executing and revising approaches to facilitate learning. And that's good. So good that we ought to speak with pride about it even though the language we so often use – the language I'm using here – is utterly uncool.

What's cool is a book. A gig at a Research 1. A wry joke about student deficiencies. In PhD programs, we take at least twelve content courses for every one pedagogy course. We write hundreds of scholarly pages, publishing as many as we can. In the job market, we are judged a great deal according to the quality of the educations, publications, and service evident on our CVs; happily, hiring committees also consult statements, letters, and other materials that address our teaching. In pursuit of tenure, we simply must publish. Imperfect methods of evaluating our teaching influence tenure decisions, too, but impact in the specialty, however it's measured, makes or breaks both good and bad teachers. The best of us are brilliant scholars and teachers. But the university favors scholars over teachers in nearly all decisions that affect job security and structural influence. This should not be so. When the professors who teach the fewest classes enjoy the highest salaries and greatest stability, the message is sent that the markers of success in higher education have little to do with educating.

Graduate programs should increase the pedagogical coursework for doctoral candidates. These courses should be meaningful and intensive. Hiring departments should weigh evidence of teaching excellence, collected in interviews and presentations as well as portfolios, more heavily than evidence of scholarly competence. Universities should tenure proficient teachers regardless of their publication records, including those instructors who teach more classes than professors. Similarly, universities should reduce the publication and service requirements for tenure. We have more journal articles than educational successes.

The problems in implementing such measures are legion. Evaluating teachers seems nearly impossible and, as it does for students, attaches sustenance to the wrong target: aim for the bullseye on this form if you want to live. And do we even know what good teaching is, much less how to measure it? What's the connection between pedagogy coursework and teaching excellence? Wouldn't we be worse off with a bunch of evaluators distributing literature on how to teach well? Whatever the ordeals, we who have devoted our professional lives to the academy should teach well, and we should benefit from the support of our schools.

Professors ought to eliminate grades.

By assigning grades, teachers in the humanities are complicit in the program of deferring judgments of the human to the quantifiable, the same program in which personal success is gauged in terms of home square footage or clothing price tags. Can we think of this as an alienation of labor? Students clock in and hammer away at assignments tailored to instructors' specs. They turn over their made objects in return for a grade, with which they buy credit, then credential. Rarely do they feel personally connected to their work; it's always endured in conditions dictated by those who own the discourses, the research resources, the means of academic production. But we needn't get all Marxist about it. Even Karl Popper, no disciple of Marx, saw in 1943 how disfigured education is. He wrote: "Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself [sic] to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement" (135).

Teachers see many counter-examples: students who take on a paper with zeal to argue for a cause they believe in; students who have always wanted to be teachers and embrace pedagogical theories as guides to becoming who they are; students who just dig what they're doing. But these are exceptions. The rule is rising standards for test scores, grade point averages, extra-curriculars. The rule is a doubling-down on the commodification of student labor (back to Marx, by the way): the successes of minority students, who are now at their historical academic best, help to raise admission standards that the minority students are then subjected to; the historically marginalized don't get into elite schools any more easily now despite their increased quality as candidates (Schmidt). Thus the student laborer “becomes poorer … the more powerful and wide-ranging his production becomes” (Marx 401). If the grade is capital in the classroom, then let's see how things go in a different classroom economy.

Students will no doubt experience a great deal of anxiety as they learn how to reorient themselves without the traditional motivating force in their educations. A question: will they learn? To reorient themselves, but also, just anything – will they learn anything? But the problem of student anxiety speaks to an ethical issue. The extent to which students themselves wish to retain a grading apparatus is the extent to which our resistance to that apparatus rests on our belief that students are awash in ideology. And who the hell are we to say that? That's the question, though, isn't it? Who the hell are we?

Works Cited

Boghossian, Paul A. “What the Sokal Hoax Ought to Teach Us.” Times Literary Supplement 13 Dec. 1996, Commentary, 14-15. NYU.edu. New York University. Web.

Brooks, David. “Who You Are.” NYTimes.com. New York Times, 20 October 2011. Web. 31 October 2011.

C.K., Louis. “Pilot.” Louie. FX Network, 29 June 2010. Television.

Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” 1969. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2007. 904-14. Print.

“How has Student Loan Debt Shaped Your Life?” Host Neal Conan. Talk of the Nation. NPR.org. Natl. Public Radio. Washington, 31 Oct. 2011. Web. 31 Oct. 2011.

Marx, Karl. “The Alienation of Labor.” 1844. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 2007. 401-5. Print.

Sokal, Alan. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Social Text 46/47 (Spring/Summer 1996): 217-52. NYU.edu. New York Unersity. Web.

Stocker, Michael. “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories.” The Journal of Philosophy 73.14 (12 Aug. 1976): 453-66. JSTOR. Web. 25 Oct. 2011.

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