Thursday, August 23, 2007

Blogosphere is already a Department of Everything Studies

Culture, Fiction, and the Humanities (x-posted to The Valve) Timothy Burke, at his blog Easily Distracted, wrote a post some time ago arguing for a Department of Everything Studies. Scott Eric Kaufman at Acephalous responded, and so did Smurov (at the Valve) in turn. One of the key paragraphs from Burke’s eminently readable post is as follows:
I want to go in the opposite direction: I want to collapse all departments concerned with the interpretation and practice of expressive culture into a single large departmental unit. I’d call it Cultural Studies, but I don’t want it to be Cultural Studies as that term is now understood in the American academy. Call it Department of the Humanities, or of Interpretation, or something more elegant and self-explanatory if you can think of it. I want English, Modern Languages, Dance, Theater, Art History, Music, the hermeneutical portions of philosophy, cultural and media studies, some strands of anthropology, history and sociology, and even a smattering of cognitive science all under one roof. I want what [John Holbo at the Valve] is calling Everything Studies, except that I want its domain limited to expressive culture.
I agree with Burke so much that I disagree with him. That may sound odd, but what I mean is that so far in the blogosphere (which is already a Department of Everything Studies) there has been a regrettable conflation of two distinct viewpoints. One the one hand, the blogosphere has enabled serious discussions about a new academic interdisciplinarity within the humanities, one capable of working with mixed media and synthesizing imaginative (e.g. literary) and analytical (e.g. philosophical) materials. On the other, people working in literary studies have in both surrendered to and indulged in the desire to downsize literary studies in favor of criticism of television shows, blockbuster films, comic books, pop songs, and other media. You can see both strains in what Burke has written.
If the humanities were to re-shape itself in order to accomodate the changing shape of culture, all of the analytical disciplines would combine — Philosophy, Political Science, English, Comparative Literature, History, Sociology, Anthropology, and the rest — while the creative disciplines would remain separate: Creative Writing, Dance, Theater, Musical Composition, and so on. Critics and scholars are not always good artists, and vice versa. The grounds for such a merger would be basically ideological. If we accept the idea that our beliefs about the world are essentially constructions, then it makes sense to give the study of those constructions the widest possible scope, such that they can range across politics, literature, philosophy, and so on. At Stanford, there is a Linguistics/Computer Science major entitled “Symbolic Systems.” Perhaps Symbolic Systems would be a good name for this new confluence of the human sciences.
If you do not accept the idea that the world is constructed by human beings, at least insofar as it is an object of concern for scholars in the humanities, then there is no point to a merger. The merger absolutely depends on the notion that works of fiction, and all other tropological acts of expression, are as “truthful” as a nation’s Constitution or a work of empiricist philosophy, and in the same way, less differences of rhetorical mode that do not parallel the usual fiction/non-fiction binary. Otherwise, Visual Studies professors can turn their attention to graphic novels (many already have), and Film or Media Studies or Communications professors can work on television shows and advertisements.
These discussions, the visible part of them, are the tip of the iceberg. Just below the surface is the fact that writers like Charles Dickens or Alexander Pope are less significant than they once were, and the general social apathy towards these writers also affects the scholars who are paid to study and teach them. Your time is limited: you can either keep up with Battlestar Galactica, or you can remedy some embarrassing gap in your knowledge of your own field, but you can’t (beyond a certain point) do both, since both literary specializations and popular culture now imply enormous territories.
We live in a time of highly accessible digital media, and the consequences for text are real; if they weren’t, you wouldn’t see so many earnest Everything Bloggers discontinuing their blogs in order to write dissertations — that is, resuming their relationships with paperbacks and hardcovers at the expense of cultural studies and the blogosphere...Published in: Pop Culture Philosophy Ethics & Morality Art & Aesthetics The Valve Teaching Blogroll Movies Meta Politics Film Literature Music on August 22, 2007 at 9:54 pm

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