Saturday, March 7, 2009

Panda suits are so 2006

The Chronicle reports that 20 of my fellow students decided that none of the other issues plaguing our country seemed quite so pressing right now as making sure that Panda Express didn't open a location in an Associated Students-owned property on Sproul Plaza. So they dressed up in panda suits and protested outside the nearest outlet of the chain in El Cerrito.

There are all of the usual things to say about my generation's version of protesting: the theatricality that becomes confused with the point, the bizarreness of protesting against a company that's already met your inchoate demands about eliminating trans fats and recycling its utensils, and the fact that you're doing your best to discourage a rental that ASUC really needs to keep afloat and continue representing, you know, your interests.

But I'd also like to say something about the fact that all of the protesters interviewed--and, one suspects, the vast majority of the 1300 people who have signed the petition against Panda--are humanities or social science majors. On Thursday, I attended a panel discussion at Stanford where Andrew DelBanco and Martha Nussbaum talked about the purpose of the humanities in a world where it seems like we can't afford them anymore. If the rejoinders were standard, they still bear repeating: the humanities, in the variety of experiences and ideas they offer, prepare us to understand other contexts and points of view, help us to be charitable when we consider conflicting arguments, and defamiliarize our own contexts so that our way of life doesn't become synonymous with the way of life. Nussbaum in particular emphasized the importance of debate and argument that treats the other side in the strongest possible light. I love the Internet, but there's a segment of the blogosphere devoted to ripping the other side a new one before bothering to extend it the philosophical principle of charity: making the strongest possible case for them, even if they don't make it for themselves, so that your task is the most challenging and the most convincing if you manage to complete it. Fortunately, the Internet's populousness tends to contain its own solution, as you can typically find someone making that case. But it's easy to refrain from following that link, if you've decided that The Corner or the Daily Kos is the font of all knowledge--but this is precisely the habit of mind that a rigorous course in the humanities discourages.

But the question I wanted to ask, and didn't, is to what extent the defense of the humanities that the panelists offered is not the strongest case they can make for the other side. I'll try to make it now. The humanities--especially English and literature departments, which people often consider a synecdoche for the humanities--have positively reveled in obscurantism and jargon for about 30 years now. They address themselves to subjects that often have little to do with literature (cf. every literature class that has turned into an excuse to watch movies), morph into bull sessions for upper middle class kids who imagine themselves oppressed because they have Irish ancestry or are women and spend their time protesting chain restaurants, and, worst of all, the people who should ostensibly be most interested in their defense come up with lame formulations like, "I enjoy books." Nothing wrong with enjoying books--enjoyment of life is one of the purposes of the humanities--but to stop there, to fail to investigate whether other human needs are met by a curriculum that has been in place for thousands of years, is irresponsible, as well as short-sighted. Stanley Fish has, from the first, wanted to be the guy who shuts off the lights, tells everyone to go home, and collects all of the door prizes on his way out, but fortunately, there are people like Nussbaum and DelBanco to push back. But I have a lot of sympathy for the critique of the humanities, precisely because of people like Fish (and Derrida, and Lacan, and every other literary critic who has written a line of truly incomprehensible or silly prose and expected that he should get a tenured sinecure for it). In short, I think that we do it to ourselves. We write and reason badly, and, worst of all, can't explain what we do or why we exist when we're asked. The humanities have become, in other words, unrigorous. We're drifting, and it should be no surprise that chancellors and deans and donors are starting to ask if even our slender shadow takes up too much room on the books.

But I have a little hope left in the vast reservoirs of despair, largely because articulate people like Nussbaum and DelBanco are at least addressing themselves to these questions. I don't find the answers comprehensive or completely satisfying, but I don't think I was meant to. There's a lot of work to be done, despite the impression--too easy to get in the academic world--that everything's been said, done, and studied. We still haven't answered the question about why literature exists. Unlike history, or philosophy, the answer isn't obvious.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 1:10 PM