Another pointless exercise

by Carl Dyke

Whatever it is that academics do, it’s pointless. Down in Florida, the Governor is sure enough of this to heroically save the taxpayers their wasted dollars by defunding junk degrees like Anthropology that don’t lead directly to jobs. Here in North Carolina the rhetoric is the same, and the plan seems to be to squeeze funding for higher education until the juice of usefulness is extracted from the pulp of waste. Around the nation trustees drawn from the world of business select and then praise university presidents who talk about preparing their students for the world of business. Because obviously, if we’re going to be paying for education, it needs to pay off, and right pronto.

What I really think is that this is all part of a complex evolutionary dynamic incident to global flows of resources, capital, and labor; and ultimately, as with all things, the capturable energy of the sun. But because that kind of analysis is hard and not immediately entertaining, I’m going to talk about tribal spear-waving and questionable metaphors instead.

So back to defunding the higher educations, Peter Dreier isn’t helping. In a play right out of the now-venerable Postmodernism Generator he repeats the Alan Sokal experiment and gets himself invited to the “Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies” conference in Tokyo, with a paper on “the absence of absences” that is gibberish he has just flat pulled out of his butt. A little more absence in that paper, please. Dreier is a sociologist, so he thinks maybe some things academics do aren’t completely useless. But he’s not too sure about the other papers on his panel, with titles like “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science” and “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”

It further does not help that Dreier himself may have been (or might as well have been) meta-pwned by the burgeoning for-profit pseudo-academia industry. Globalization + (publish or perish) = shenanigans. I’ll mention here that I have seen no particular signs of rigorous curation at any conference I’ve attended over the past thirty years, in Tokyo or otherwise. Because how could they, really, and a conference must have papers like a dog must have fleas. So among other questionable uses of my time I have sat politely (if you don’t count the squirming and eye-rolling) through about forty-leven bright young literary scholars earnestly and interdisciplinarily telling me stuff they happened to notice about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Which brings me to my new colleague Cameron’s recent lyceum presentation, “Why Are We Comfortable with a Serial Killer on Cereal Boxes?: Frankenstein in Pop Culture.” I’ll get to what was good about my guy’s thing in a second, but by way of transition I must first remark that it was perfectly, gloriously, in every way (well, except no sneering righteous fulminations against the patriarchy, white supremacy, neoliberalism, the American empire, or what have you so sort of tolerable in that sense), exactly what the critics of academe have in mind when they cut every precious tax dollar they can get their righteously crusading gauntlets on from this useless nonsense. Charmingly and eruditely, in the best tradition of the Whatsis Critical Something Justice Cultural Something Studies that are the very first targets of the reformist backlash, and with Powerpoint slides including lots of hot babes, Cameron noodled his way through two hundred years of arbitrarily selected and completely uncontextualized pop culture in order to make the point that – what? I can’t remember, because one never does with these things. Pointless! And for this he’s going to get social acclaim and publicly subsidized lifetime employment in a job that is objectively one of the best humans have ever invented. Which he will then complain about. (Cameron himself, maybe not so much a complainer. But you follow me.)

Now we come to the turn. I won’t try to justify any of the Dreier stuff; it’s bad, and maybe systematically bad. There’s a lot about academe that not only enables but encourages charlatans, frauds, and hacks.

But I mentioned Cameron was erudite and charming, and he was. He also made no pretence that what he was up to was in any way immediately important or useful. It was, first of all, an interesting stroll around a landscape, indicating various notable features. Folks regularly journey to distant lands and pay thousands to professionally charming experts for this sort of pointless tourism. I think most everyone understands that the payoff of being herded around the sights is not some bankable return on investment. Our university lyceum, which is a public presentation, works very well when it’s that sort of tour. Our classes too, for that matter. Still, taxpayers don’t subsidize tourism (get it, I just made a funny) so I can see why this might not be good enough. And of course we don’t grade tourists (look, another funny).

So Cameron’s Frankenstein thing was a tour. So was my dissertation. So is this and many other blog posts. So were Dyke the Elder’s early papers on political philosophy, which I’ve tracked down and skimmed with great pride. He walks around the likes of Rousseau, indicating notable features.

But thinking about Rousseau or Gramsci or Frankenstein, yet again, again and again and again for crying out loud, Frankenstein again really??? works as a metaphor I like even better – a workout. When I run, I run in a circle. When I go to the gym, I can’t expect to end up somewhere after a half hour on the treadmill. When I pick up a weight, it’s only to put it back down again. I don’t notice the weight much, or remember it in detail. It would be silly to. Furthermore, in terms of immediate return on my investment of money, time, and energy I am not gaining anything! I’m getting tired and sore; I’m actually tearing my muscles down! I leave the gym objectively worse off than I came, not to mention the wear and tear on the gym equipment. The whole thing is a hugely expensive waste, just like the nth Frankenstein talk, Cameron’s and my and Dyke the Elder’s careers, and the whole liberal education racket.

(So here I’m going to interject that I don’t go to the gym any more. I always hated it; I did it for many years because, once you get past the short-term frustrations and degradations, you do in fact get stronger, more fit, more resilient, and, if you crosstrain properly, more generally capable. But now I live on a farm, which is full of physical tasks that work and stretch my body in the necessary ways. Living a life that naturally challenges and develops you is obviously preferable to going to the gym, and to school. Or so the Stoics said a couple thousand years ago. Those lives are not widely available, unfortunately, and as those mouth-breathers out in Oregon have recently demonstrated, are not automatically edifying.)

The point is that the weights and exercises are not the point. I don’t care about weights or treadmills as such. In the same way I don’t care if my students care about the finer points of distinction between National Socialists and Social Democrats (been doing a lot with Nazis this semester). I’ve heard and can make an argument that this would immediately make them better citizens, but to be honest I don’t think it’s actually going to change anything as such. Nazis certainly knew those points of distinction, at least to pass the test and crack ‘the right’ heads; that knowing was not automatically edifying either. I don’t expect Cameron cares much if the audience at the lyceum can still say exactly why pictures of conventionally attractive women showed up in a talk on Frankenstein. That connection he showed us how to make was just an exercise, a weight to struggle with for a second – put it down when you’re done, that’s fine.

The same politicians and businessmen who side-eye the return on investment of publicly subsidized education then complain to me on the tennis courts about how intellectually flabby and useless the college graduates they hire are. From my classes I know exactly who all these people are. They’re the ones who skipped the workouts.

P.S.: At this point we could talk about a ‘food for thought’ metaphor and fatty snacks. After all, even the most nourishing meal turns to shit by the next day. Circle of life, baby. Instead I’ll mention that I’m sorry to have been so long away from this blog, which I still love and treasure. ‘Buying the farm’ has chewed up a lot of bandwidth. In the meantime anybody who’s still following here and who’s wondering what I’m thinking about should friend me on Facebook (Carl Dyke, Methodist [University], Cameron North Carolina), where I do a lot of microblogging, and you might also be interested in the links I and my colleagues share on the Facebook Methodist University Department of History page. You can see lots and lots of farm pictures on Rachel’s Instagram, therachelherrick.


8 Comments to “Another pointless exercise”

  1. Carl, could you provide a link or some additional keywords for people wishing to friend you on FaceBook? Searching for Carl Dyke turns up several names, but none of them seems like you to me.

  2. In my limited experience, what academics do is not pointless. The current problem is that it doesn’t deliver the immediate/short-term results that people are hoping for, trained workers for business or jobs and careers for graduates. In a world where the key to successful careers is said to be creativity, it’s important to remember the words of advertising guru Carl Ally,

    “The creative person wants to be a know-it-all. He wants to know about all kinds of things: ancient history, nineteenth century mathematics, current manufacturing techniques, flower arranging, and hog futures. Because he never knows when these ideas might come together to form a new idea. It may happen six minutes later or six years down the road. But he has faith that it will happen.”

    Carl Ally, quoted in Roger von Oech (1990) A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Become Creative. p. 6

  3. Thanks John, keywords updated. And that’s a great quote.

    I actually don’t think academia pays off very well on the creativity thing. It’s an incredibly expensive and inefficient engine if we shift the metaphors to productivity, which is what the business folks shortsightedly do. At this point it gets really complicated. As an evolutionary system it’s dynamically interconnected with other systems in a whole variety of ways, including those sectors of business that need creative staff and those sectors of business that need unimaginative but well disciplined functionaries. It’s segmented so that those two outputs are unevenly distributed across schools and programs. Meanwhile it’s performing status and legitimation services and acting as a jobs program, much of that publicly funded as an upper tier of the welfare state. Etc.

    I guess one deeper point I could be getting at is that everything in academe that looks like waste may well be system instead, in the same sense we now know it’s better not to kill off all the bacteria in our guts and soil because in unbelievably intricate ways they’re making our lives as we know them possible. If Philosophy departments are like E. coli colonies, sometimes they’re parasitic and sometimes they’re symbiotic, sometimes they make you sick and sometimes they make you tick. Our understanding of these interactive couplings tends to be poor, which means that our experiments in managing them tend to be crude and often harmful.

  4. Heh, I just did a job talk at a Bronx high school telling them it’s totally cool to major in Anthropology, because you can end up with a cool job at The University Library! Ta-da! Crickets. They then asked me a lot of questions about tenure and nothing about what’s really cool about my job. Although, one student asked how my mom felt about me becoming a [pause] librarian? and I suddenly had anxiety that I was disappointing my parents and had no idea.

    I’m conflicted about working for a massive, business-minded, tuition-gulping university. It can feel quite evil to be a cog in the student debt machine. But, I try to weigh that out by thinking about service models that will allow people to access as much information as they can (even– especially– when they’re not thinking about accessing as much information as they can). There is a joy that comes from finding stuff out (if there wasn’t, Google wouldn’t be a thing), and connecting that stuff to other stuff. And maybe sometimes you connect the stuff in a way that’s profitable and maybe you never do, but you just had a really good day because you linked some stuff to some other stuff and that’s enjoyable.

    It is tough to do the workouts. Currently my workouts are trying to think up and enact the things that will help students to do their workouts. Just like everyone’s workouts, forcing that into each day is time-consuming and hard and tedious, but little by little things move easier and hurt less.

  5. In my existentialism course (that I taught for 30 years) there was always a moment when I pointed out to the class that my job was among the most Sisyphan imaginable. Well, yes, the rocks had faces — or at least versions of the same face — but beyond that …
    Carl is in the process of getting a better appreciation of how Sisyphan farming (necessarily) is.
    If you can’t handle ultimate meaninglessness, you can’t enjoy two of the most fun and rewarding activities ever to show up.
    Life is local.

  6. It is, although we ate fresh eggs this morning, and that life was not lo-cal.

    Anderblog, your gradual deprogramming from the family’s reflex demonizing anticorporatism is coming along nicely. I’m serious when I call higher education a jobs program. Our graduates will go work in other jobs programs. As they ‘earn money’ they will ‘pay back their loans’. I refer to this as ‘the economy’. Marx had this idea that we could sort of tip over into just doing all of that without worrying about the money part. Every time you describe how you actually do your job and how you feel about it, that vision comes shining through.

  7. “everything in academe that looks like waste may well be system instead.” So much this. That’s the point: we don’t know what’s going to be valuable, and the legislature’s attempts to defund everything that doesn’t look like an immediate “winner” in monetary terms is fatally shortsighted–and, as you say, not helped by the hoaxers. Welcome back!

  8. Thanks, Undine! I suppose the reciprocal danger is a kind of hoarder’s mentality, where everything might be valuable and nothing can ever be thrown out. But as long as it’s all makework anyway, I don’t see a downside to that.

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