an intermittently coherent rant, or plea; a draft of something that needs to be longer and more detailed; an absurdly hypertrophied tweet; a cri de coeur
Strange that as modern philosophy transfers the visible wealth of nature more and more to the mind, the mind should seem to lose courage and to become ashamed of its own fertility. The hard-pressed natural man will not indulge his imagination unless it poses for truth; and being half aware of this imposition, he is more troubled at the thought of being deceived than at the fact of being mechanised or being bored: and he would wish to escape imagination altogether. A good God, he murmurs, could not have made us poets against our will. — George Santayana
So wrote R. P. Blackmur, an eminent poet and critic from Princeton University, writing in the Sewanee Review in 1945. His essay is called “The Economy of the American Writer: Preliminary Notes,” and his chief question is whether it is possible for literary writers to make a living. Plus ça change, oui? An essay very much worth reading for anyone, but especially for people who think that the problem of the aspiring-artist-piecing-together-a-rough-living is a phenomenon of the millennial generation.
Anyhow, Blackmur is concerned because he has run some numbers.
In these circumstances, where can the necessary money — money sufficient to allow artists to pursue their art full-time (or nearly so) — come from?
From our vantage point, perhaps the most interesting point here is Blackmur’s uncertainty about the most likely source of support for artists: will they find their place in the world of the university, or in the world of the non-profit foundation? Well, we know how it turned out: while foundations do still support artists of various kinds, universities have turned out to be the chief patrons of American artists — especially writers.
Blackmur sees that even at his moment support for writers and artists is drifting towards the university; he’s just not altogether happy about that. He’s not happy because he has seen that “the universities are themselves increasingly becoming social and technical service stations — are increasingly attracted into the orbit of the market system.” A prophetic word if there ever was one. The universities have in the intervening seventy years become generous patrons of the arts; but what is virtually impossible for us to see, because we can’t re-run history, is the extent to which the arts have been limited and confined by being absorbed into an institution that has utterly lost its independence from “the market system” — that has simply and fully become what the Marxist critic Louis Althusser called an “ideological state apparatus,” an institution that does not overtly belong to the massive nation-state but exists largely to support and when possible fulfill the nation-state’s purposes.
One of my favorite things about W. H. Auden is his tendency, when he has something very serious to say, to cast it in comic terms. In 1946 Auden wrote a poem for the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. It is called “Under Which Lyre: A Reactionary Tract for the Times,” and you may listen to the poet read it here. As Adam Kirsch has noted, Harvard had played an important role in the war:
Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had perished. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the highest level: President James Bryant Conant had been one of those consulted when President Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Now that the Cold War was under way, the partnership between the University and the federal government was destined to grow even closer.
As Kirsch only hints, Auden was deeply suspicious of the capture of intellectual life by what, fifteen years later, President Eisenhower would call the “military-industrial complex”; and he presented his poem as a direct, if superficially light-hearted, attack on that capture. For Auden, Conant was a perfect embodiment of the “new barbarian” who was breaking down the best of Western culture from within. (See more about this here.)
Soon after his return from Harvard, Auden told his friend Alan Ansen, “When I was delivering my Phi Beta Kappa poem in Cambridge, I met Conant for about five minutes. ‘This is the real enemy,’ I thought to myself. And I’m sure he had the same impression about me.”
I want to draw closer to the ideas that I think are at the heart of this problem — this problem about the financial status of the arts and humanities, especially now that they are so thoroughly entangled with the university — by reflecting on two essays by David Graeber — one and two — because I think that, while they seem to have very different purposes, they contribute in interesting and useful ways to a single important point.
Let me say at the outset that I have significant reservations about some details of the arguments that Graeber develops. But I want to see what ideas emerge if we at least take those arguments seriously.
In the first of these essays Graeber takes up the old “Where are our flying cars?” question — or, in my favorite version of the complaint, Jaron Lanier’s sharp comment: “Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, ‘In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX.’”
Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened? The question struck me as I watched one of the recent *Star Wars* movies. The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now — only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be *doing* this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”
So why have things turned out this way? That’s the subject of Graeber’s essay, and if you’re interested in this question at all you should read the whole thing, because he makes his case in some detail. But he sums up that case here:
By the sixties, conservative political forces were growing skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading Soviet threat allowed for a reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic arrangements, or indeed directions that could support a campaign of reversing the gains of progressive social movements and achieving a decisive victory in what U.S. elites saw as a global class war. The change of priorities was introduced as a withdrawal of big-government projects and a return to the market, but in fact the change shifted government-directed research away from programs like NASA or alternative energy sources and toward military, information, and medical technologies.
The question Graber wants to put to us is this: To what extent are our imaginations shaped — constrained, limited — by our having had to live with the technological choices made by the military-industrial complex — by industries and universities working in close collaboration with the government, in a spirit of subservience to its needs?
Or, to put it another way: How were we taught not even to dream of flying cars and jetpacks? — or, or for that matter, an end to world hunger, something that C. P. Snow, in his famous lecture on “the two cultures” of the sciences and humanities, saw as clearly within our grasp more than half-a-century ago? To see “sophisticated simulations” of the things we used to hope we’d really achieve as good enough?
Now let’s turn to the second Graeber essay, one about play. The question that Graeber wants us to consider here is simply this: Do animals, even the kind we tend to think of as primitive organisms, play? He tells the story of a friend who points to the playing of a worm, and asks,
How do we know the worm was playing? Perhaps the invisible circles it traced in the air were really just a search for some unknown sort of prey. Or a mating ritual. Can we prove they weren’t? Even if the worm was playing, how do we know this form of play did not serve some ultimately practical purpose: exercise, or self-training for some possible future inchworm emergency?
This would be the reaction of most professional ethologists as well. Generally speaking, an analysis of animal behavior is not considered scientific unless the animal is assumed, at least tacitly, to be operating according to the same means/end calculations that one would apply to economic transactions. Under this assumption, an expenditure of energy must be directed toward some goal, whether it be obtaining food, securing territory, achieving dominance, or maximizing reproductive success — unless one can absolutely prove that it isn’t, and absolute proof in such matters is, as one might imagine, very hard to come by.
As I noted earlier, this seems to cover a very different subject than his meditation on flying cars and the absence thereof — but it’s really about the same thing, which is: the impact of economic structures on imagination. For Graeber it could scarcely be accidental that a world devoted to utility-maximizing, acquisitive market-based behavior would create a theory that animals, indeed the very genes of creatures, invariably behave in a utility-miximizing, acquisitive way in the Great Market of Life.
The epitome of this line of thought came with militant atheist Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene — a work that insisted all biological entities were best conceived of as “lumbering robots,” programmed by genetic codes that, for some reason no one could quite explain, acted like “successful Chicago gangsters,” ruthlessly expanding their territory in an endless desire to propagate themselves. Such descriptions were typically qualified by remarks like, “Of course, this is just a metaphor, genes don’t really want or do anything.” But in reality, the neo-Darwinists were practically driven to their conclusions by their initial assumption: that science demands a rational explanation, that this means attributing rational motives to all behavior, and that a truly rational motivation can only be one that, if observed in humans, would normally be described as selfishness or greed. As a result, the neo-Darwinists went even further than the Victorian variety. If old-school Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer viewed nature as a marketplace, albeit an unusually cutthroat one, the new version was outright capitalist. The neo-Darwinists assumed not just a struggle for survival, but a universe of rational calculation driven by an apparently irrational imperative to unlimited growth.
For those whose ideas have been shaped so thoroughly by the logic of capitalism, people like Prince Kropotkin who see mutual aid as a factor in evolution, or who would go still further and see play as simply intrinsic to being alive — Graeber doesn’t cite J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens here, but he should — are just nuts. They’re not seeing the world as it obviously really is.
But, Graeber suggests, maybe what’s obvious from within the logic of late capitalism isn’t so obvious from another point of view; and maybe what’s nuts according to the logic of late capitalism is, again from another point of view, not necessarily nuts. Maybe there is more in heaven and earth, Professor Dawkins, than is dreamt of in your evolutionary biology.
In a famous passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — the much-anthologized chapter called “Seeing” — Annie Dillard cites the naturalist Stewart Edward White on how to learn to see deer: “As soon as you can forget the naturally obvious and construct an artificial obvious, then you too will see deer.” That is, you have to learn to pick out certain now-and-for-you-insignificant elements in your visual field and reassign them to the realm of the significant. And this is true, not just for the visual but also for the mental field. But it is also and equally true that our constructions of the artificial obvious are not invariably reliable: sometimes they are wrong, and if we then forget that they are our constructions, and think of them as the natural obvious, as the way things just are … we’re screwed.
This is Graeber’s point. And you don’t have to agree with him about the playfulness of worms to see its importance. Our social and economic structures prompt us, every day and in a hundred different ways, to see certain elements of our mental field as significant while ever-so-gently discouraging us from noticing others at all. And when it comes to the constructions of our mental worlds, as opposed to our visual fields, we might be missing something more lastingly important than a guy in a gorilla suit.
All of these reflections started with my reading of a 1945 article about the entanglements of the arts with universities, at a time when universities were in danger of becoming what they have since largely become: “social and technical service stations.” Let’s try now to get back to those concerns.
A few days ago my Twitter feed was full of references to a new journalistic endeavor: the California Sunday Magazine. A possible eventual rival to the New Yorker, some people are saying. So naturally I checked it out. I saw that the feature article is a report by Carina Chocano on some recent ventures in virtual reality— especially the much-anticipated (or much-hyped, depending on your point of view) Oculus Rift.
Chocano is enthusiastic:
Filmmakers, animators, visual-effects artists, and journalists have begun experimenting with short features, documentary films, and art projects that immerse viewers deep in other worlds. In February of this year, Oculus hired a director of film and media, Eugene Chung, and started pitching the platform to Hollywood studios. The directors James Cameron, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón have all expressed interest in the technology. My tour of the virtual reality lab at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts was interrupted — with so much fanfare and advance security that for a minute we thought we were about to meet the president — by an unannounced visit from Will Smith. And this spring, the screenplay guru Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List, helped Oculus organize a get-together for about 30 screenwriters at the Hollywood Hills home of screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks, Fifty Shades of Grey) to introduce them to the medium and spark a discussion about how it might be used to tell stories.
Some smart people, people I really respect, have told me that they think this is a terrific article. But I have to say, it reads to me like the product of a marketing team. Now, I have no problem with Chocano’s excited response to her experience with VR — of another experiment in the medium she writes, “it might rank as one of most profound aesthetic experiences of my life,” and if that is the case she is right to say so — but I do have a problem with sentences like these: “Virtual reality is at once a communication platform and a transportation medium. It completely annihilates time and space.” My problem is that they might have been written by entrepreneurs for their pitches to VC firms.
Look again at the paragraph I quoted above: it is an utterly uncritical celebration of everything that I, with a lot of help from David Graeber, have been calling into question in this essay: the idea that the coolest technologies are those that provide “sophisticated simulations,” the easy, mutually supportive union of an enormously rich and powerful entertainment industry, an enormously rich and powerful technology industry, and an enormously rich and powerful education industry. I describe the union in that way because that’s what many of our universities have become: just another industry in league with other products of capitalism, not a site of critique or a place where alternative visions of the Good Life can be explored — and maybe even practiced.
It would of course be completely unfair for me to complain that Carina Chocano’s article fails to do the things that I’m trying to do in this essay, or that she fails to hold dear precisely the things that I hold dear. But I do think it’s fair to ask a writer to notice that everyone she’s interviewing and describing is trying to sell us all something — and ask her to raise a few critical shields accordingly. All of those industries have very large and very skilled marketing departments; they really don’t need or deserve writers to work as adjunct marketers.
My point is: I don’t like seeing journalism being drawn so consistently into the same self-justifying, self-celebrating circles that the American university itself was drawn into during and following World War II. As R. P. Blackmur rightly feared, the intimacy between universities and government did not end when the war ended; it only intensified, and the fact that those universities became our chief patrons of the arts, especially literary writing, at the very moment that they crawled permanently into bed with government and industry, cannot be without repercussions for artists.
The best guide to the rise of creative programs in particular is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, and it’s fascinating how McGurl repeatedly walks right up to the edge of a clearly articulated critique of this system without ever crossing it. In the penultimate sentence of his book he writes, “Is there not more excellent fiction being produced now than anyone has time to read?” Then he starts a new paragraph before giving us the book’s last sentence: “What kind of traitor to the mission of mass higher education would you have to be to think otherwise?” Oh clever man!
Yes, there is a great deal of skillfully written post-World-War-II fiction available to us, indeed more than we could ever read. But how much of it embodies the kind of imaginative otherness that, as David Graeber reminds us, our social/cultural/economic contexts militate against? How much of it, shaped as it is in institutions that owe their continued existence to their affiliation with the military-industrial complex, envisions ways of life radically other than the ones we now experience? How much of it offers more than increasingly sophisticated simulations of worlds we already know, can predict, feel comfortable in? How much, in short, is conducive to genuine hope?
I guess what I’m asking for is pretty simple: for writers of all kinds, journalists as well as fiction writers, and artists and academics, to strive to extricate themselves from an “artificial obvious” that has been constructed for us by the dominant institutions of our culture. Simple; also probably impossible. But it’s worth trying. Few things are more worth trying.
And I am also asking universities to realize and to reconsider their implication in those dominant institutions. I don’t demand that schools sever their ties with those institutions, since that would be financially suicidal, and economic times for higher education are hard enough as it is. But there need to be more pockets of resistance: more institutions with self-consciously distinctive missions, and within institutions more departments or even just informal discussion groups who seek to imagine the so-far unimaginable.
Finally, I am asking all this of myself. I’m fifty-five years old. I’ve probably got twenty or so years to think and write at the highest level I’m capable of, and in those years I want to surprise myself. I don’t want merely to recycle and redeploy the ideas I have inherited. I know that this is easier for me, a white American man with a secure job, than it is for many others. But then, that’s all the more reason for me to do it.
Fifty years ago, Jacques Derrida gave a lecture that would become very famous, and created a stir even as he presented it. When the talk ended, the first questioner was Jean Hyppolite, and he asked Derrida what his talk was “tending toward.” Derrida replied, “I was wondering myself if I know where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.”