The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Monday, May 28, 2018

On Reading the Long Novel

by Lael Ewy

When one references War and Peace, one does so in order to invoke a cliché. War and Peace is the quintessentially long novel. It is known for that and for nearly nothing else—certainly not as something anyone would actually read.

In fact, the cliché itself is really not about the length of the book; the cliché is about the impossibility of reading it, and the disdain the speaker has for long novels.

For these reasons, among others, I set out to actually read it.

I suppose people hear the call to engage in physical challenges such as running marathons to prove something to themselves (or others), or the call to climb mountains “because [they are] there,” but I set out to read War and Peace in order to try to restore reality to it. For at least one living member of the species, it would become a novel again.

Since you probably won’t read it, here’s what you need to know from someone who has:

1. It’s good. For the most part. It’s not the novel you’d think it should be at least in part because novels weren’t what you now think they are when Tolstoy wrote it. Hundreds of pages are devoted to the analysis of the individual’s place in history and the minutiae of the War of 1812. The latter was of great importance to his expected audience, and it might still be of interest to scholars of military history. The former should be of interest to anyone with a pulse. But

2. no doubt all that would annoy contemporary readers. I honestly have no idea what contemporary readers want out of a novel these days. Apparently, they want to be terrified by the prospect of a dystopian future. To me, this seems silly given that the prospect of a dystopian present is quite frightening enough. However,

3. it’s not a “hard” read. There’s merely a lot of it there. Tolstoy, as is typical of the great Russian writers, draws characters who are detailed and complex, so if you put the book down for a while, it’s easy to pick back up. Like with old friends, you may not recall every detail of their lives since you saw them last, but you’ll always remember who they are.

Few western European writers create characters who are this fully realized. Perhaps Dickens’ main characters, but he also populated his book with caricatures in a way that Tolstoy never would. Even soldiers we meet for only a few pages seem like real people we might know. In the US, maybe Hurston Henry James, or Melville (at his best) were capable of such things, as, perhaps, the greatest of the French. 

4. It’s a romance, historical novel, and philosophical treatise. And that’s probably why it’s so long. The historical figures, including Napoleon himself, as the other characters, come across as actual people. The book’s philosophy, while I disagree with it, must be defended, and the novel almost achieves that as well. To a degree, the characters themselves might contradict the philosophy it seems to promote, but perhaps Tolstoy intended that, pitting the lived experiences of the humans against the cynicism and determinism of the narrator.

At any rate, it’s ambitious. That’s in its favor overall, but it also means that there is a lot for the book to do.

5. Reading it is familiar if you’re used to 19h century novels and philosophy. Most people these days aren’t, I guess, and maybe that’s why they should read more 19th century novels and philosophy.

Reading War and Peace will change your orientation to time, people, and thought, and that’s a good thing. The thinking that most people are able to do is severely compromised by the media they have chosen to consume. We’re unable to think long thoughts because we seldom encounter them. We’re distracted because we surround ourselves with distractions. And consume media we do: popping tweets like we do Skittles and gnawing video games like endless bags of chips. This has reinforced our inability to think in a coherent way. We may have deep maps in our minds of a million virtual adventures, but if we’re unable to appreciate the lives of those we believe are not like us—the Russians of 200 years ago or a Black laundress in the Jim Crow South—maybe we’re wasting our time. Perhaps we’ve “escaped” during the time we’ve played, but we haven’t really prepared ourselves to make the world we inevitably re-enter a better place.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Arts and Humanities, Again and Always

By Lael Ewy, MFA, CPS

In some ways, the arts and humanities are the only endeavors in which “lived experience” has always been privileged. So it’s no wonder they’d be marginalized or actually argued against in an essentially technocratic age. But the arts and humanities are also what’s missing from the current “job oriented” educational realignment. These programs may prepare people for specific jobs (although that’s questionable), but they do not prepare people for work in a future in which the nature of specific jobs is constantly in flux.

That, however, is not why we should keep them around.

The argument against lived experience is also an argument for process over understanding, the idea that through research and evaluation processes alone we will be able to gather all of the data we need to make the decisions we need to make. This is ridiculous; without “real life” understanding of something, you can’t even create meaningful criteria for evaluation. In this sense, the movement away from lived experience is a power play by those in charge and their academic lackeys to replace what they cannot control, direct understanding, with what they can control, processes and policies—in terms Bakhtin might use, to replace the novel with the epic.

This is the same attitude that privileges supervisory structures and administrative processes over the work itself, the executive summary over the full report, the report over the voices from the field, the data over the principle—if, that is, the principle is even addressed at all. It’s the driving force behind dismissing all truly new thinking as “theoretical” and all real world information as “merely anecdotal.”

In this sense, both “street smarts” and “book larnin’” are being marginalized in favor of the kinds of evaluative processes that exist for the sake of controlling the terms in which ideas are discussed (again, if they’re discussed at all) and for the sake of reinforcing power by those who already have it. “And we have the numbers to show it,” or “researchers say” are statements that seem unassailable, and so few question where those numbers come from or the assumptions upon which their gathering and interpretation are based.

When we lose an art, we lose a way of understanding the world. Consider that for a minute. What other realm of human endeavor would allow itself to just die, to be told by wealthy and powerful and supremely ignorant and unimaginative people that it should simply go away, that there is no place in the future for how it knows and what it has discovered? Yet that is exactly what academic institutions and their rich donors are doing to the humanities and the arts.

When its critics level against the arts and humanities that they aren’t practical or don’t prepare people for “the real world” or “real jobs,” what these people are actually saying is “The only thing that’s important is what I believe I can immediately sell,” or “The only thing that has any value is what I believe the market wants.” Nobody ever asks these same people to back up what they’re saying or to defend the principles they’re using to make the claim. So the debate about the value of the arts and humanities isn’t even about practicality at all but about a very narrow view of what’s important to human beings, a view that almost all of us accept without question because it’s the view of rich and powerful people. When the actual pettiness and ignorance of their position is revealed, it’s easy, or at least easier, to see why it is wrong, yet because of the positions of those who share this view, we are still collectively afraid to confront it.

So we try to justify what we already do as preparing people for jobs, as having practical components. We repackage arts programs as graphic design, drop studio arts majors for career programs in video game design, shrink studies of poetry for badges in advanced tweeting. Some of this has merit: studying the arts and humanities will make you a better communicator, and it will improve your critical thinking skills. When you see, as I have, respected scientists making basic errors in logic, when you see tech company executives utterly unable to imagine the negative experiences of their users much less dystopias they are busy creating, when you see presidents unable to understand why calling immigrants “animals” is wrong, you can begin to see why these people might need a few more novels and poems and paintings in their lives.

But the value of the arts and humanities is inherent, and that’s not something those currently in power, who understand “value” only in the most basic of monetary terms, can even begin to understand.

When we look back at the great cultures of antiquity, we don’t marvel at their technology except in the most patronizing of ways, amazed at what such “primitive” people could accomplish. But when we read their literature, when we hear their stories, meditate on their holy writ, when we analyze their design and witness the world from the perspective of their visual art, we experience something that a patronizing attitude never could: recognition, an understanding of the experiences they, and we, live every day.

When we encounter their art, their literature, their philosophy, we recognize something that we can learn from: we learn more, and more deeply, about being human. And that is continually new.