You may have wondered: what are literary professors expert in? What do they, properly, know about?
For a partial answer, here’s a re-up of a post from several years ago. It is a listing of paper and session topics from the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (the major meeting of the field), when it was held here in Vancouver several years ago.
At the Vancouver MLA, you could attend sessions on:
The idea of “West Asia”
Old Norse Folklore
The Armenian genocide
Israeli-South African relations
The Cold War
The First World War
Being black in Germany
The English Civil War
How to get a good government job
The Middle Class
Recent European geopolitics
Life in occupied Palestine
The libidinal economy of data [sic]
Cognitive science, re: memory
Doing business in Italy
The National Security Education Program (NSEP)
Being a Muslim woman
1714 in Catalonia
South Asians in Africa
The Sun, the moon, and the stars.
There’s science, and that’s great. Then there’s Science Bores (SBs), and they’re not. You know, people like Dawkins, Tyson, Pinker.
One of the irritating things about SBs is their pose of epistemological modesty. Science doesn’t dogmatically claim to be True, they’ll say. It just claims to be — and here there are many formulations, but one that I read recently is: “True on the basis of the available evidence.” (Presumably, there really ought to be an “apparently” at the beginning of that phrase, but let that pass.) This is the kind of thing that makes SBs pat their tummies with satisfaction.
Let’s abbreviate “True on the basis of the available evidence” as “TrueEv.”
What is the meaning of “true” in TrueEv?
It can’t be TrueEv, or we have an infinite regress.
But non-TrueEv True is what SBs deny (via TrueEv).
So this kind of tummy-patting, which is supposed to signify an epistemological modesty, is in fact quite empty.
It’s just a pose.
An idea I’ve been kicking around for the last few years — and we can call it, loosely, phenomenological — is that technological intervention into a given form of life projects the relevant pre-technological category as normative or natural. The pre-tech form, we think, precedes the technologized one; and it seems like we can escape or resist the latter by turning back to the former. But in fact, I think this is wrong on both counts. The pre-tech category follows from the technological intervention. Turning back to the former merely, and even pitilessly, re-asserts and re-enforces the latter.
Take the example of “live music.” We may revere and treasure this, as the pre-tech form of recorded music. And we may suppose that we are stepping outside the somewhat dehumanizing space of modernity when we go to take in some live music. But clearly: the very idea of “live” music totally depends on its recorded analog. Prior to recording, live is just what music is. Therefore, every time we talk up “live” music, as something special or pre-technological, we are proclaiming our allegiance to the technological intervention — recording — that allows the “pre-tech” form to be there.
Or consider the concept — beloved by lit profs — of orality. That is, spoken language, prior to, or outside, its written form. Anthropologically, it stands to reason (sorry, Derrida) that human beings spoke before they wrote. Accordingly, we get a phenomenological thrill when we turn back to, or feel like we can turn back to, oral literatures: In Homer, or in the West African bards, or in some of the pre-contact cultures of the Americas. But it is exactly like the point about live and recorded music: Only when there is literacy is there such a thing as orality. Until and unless the written word confronts the spoken one, spoken is just what a word is. Talking up “orality” does not take us one single step outside the circle of technological power that is literacy. Quite the contrary.
This is not to say that we have no reason to want phenomenological liberation. We have every reason to want that. It is to say, rather, that we are not liberated, in any field or form of life — literary, cultural, civic, or political — by fetishization of what we take to be pre-tech categories. For the latter are projected by, and lead back to, the very technology that is in question.
Where does this go? Lots of places, I think. But all will be governed by versions of the same insight. The way to liberate our consciousness is not to de-technologize. The way to liberate our consciousness is not to care.
An idea I have been kicking around for several years is that technology legitimately enriches our experience precisely by rendering itself aggressively normative. The absence or denial of the technology then becomes special, in a way that simply could not have obtained before.
So, for example: recorded music yields live. Electric light yields candle-lit. An umbrella yields just walking bareheaded in the rain. And so on.
And, as I realized this evening on the bus: constantly and obsessively poking at data-enabled smartphones yields–just quietly doing nothing! For quite some time!
I mean, as a choice and pleasure!
I have been thinking about compelled speech: that is, when somebody is forced to perform a certain utterance. Obviously, compelled speech isn’t free. Therefore, in a country like Canada, where free speech is the law, compelled speech is illegal.
But there are surely some exceptions.
Suppose, for example, that you’re a cashier at Safeway. Your boss demands, as a condition of your employment, that you say “have a nice day” to your customers. Can he, legally, do that?
It seems to me the answer is probably “yes.” And not, I think, because the utterance in question is trivial. Rather, your Safeway boss can make you say “have a nice day” because that utterance serves the technical remit of his business. The latter includes being friendly and courteous to customers. So saying “have a nice day” is the same kind of thing as saying “it’s in aisle 9” or “here’s your change.” It’s Safeway-talk, in a context where you have agreed to engage in such talk.
But now suppose your boss wants you to say: “God save the Queen.” Can he do that?
It seems to me the answer is almost certainly “no.” For that utterance is in no way relevant to the technical remit of Safewaying. Rather, it constitutes an expression of a certain political allegiance—monarchism. The latter interacts with Safeway-talk only insofar as it extends to the whole of civic life. Over that, your boss can claim no legal power.
So it would be illegal for your Safeway boss to try to make you say “God save the Queen.” Or any utterance like that.
No doubt, this has all been thought through before, many times. But sometimes, it’s pleasant to work things out on your own. That’s the territory of knowledge.
At the end of The Mirror of Information, I asked the future if the hype around AVs, ca. 2016, would turn out to have been justified.
The future got back to me.