Things to Do in the Twenty-First Century

CapitalI had thought Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” would be one of those books I would continue to read about but would probably not read first-hand. At 685 pages, its great strength data, its cost new $39.95 (speaking of wealth and distribution), the French economist’s thick tome was not on my list of books to keep an eye out for, let alone add to one of the several stacks of books to read already piled about the house. Piketty’s book is a stack of its own.

In an Isaac Chotiner interview with Piketty at the New Republic , Piketty himself speaks to to the difficulty of reading such books:

IC: Can you talk a little bit about the effect of Marx on your thinking and how you came to start reading him?

TP: Marx?

IC: Yeah.

TP: I never managed really to read it. I mean I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?

IC: Some of his essays, but not the economics work.

TP:The Communist Manifesto of 1848 is a short and strong piece. Das Kapital, I think, is very difficult to read and for me it was not very influential.

IC: Because your book, obviously with the title, it seemed like you were tipping your hat to him in some ways.

TP: No not at all, not at all! The big difference is that my book is a book about the history of capital. In the books of Marx there’s no data.

But I was wrong. First, fortune brought “Capital” my way. I was walking down to a distant mailbox (like newspapers disappearing, so too are the neighborhood mailboxes). On my way, I looked into our local library box. Only about five or six books. The Believer magazines I’d dropped off the other night were gone. But there at the end of the top shelf in the library box was Piketty’s “Capital.” I picked it up. Looked unread, brand new. Weighed about five pounds. Would it still be there in the box when I got back from dropping off my mail? I glanced through it. Couldn’t take that chance. Not with this kind of fortune. So I walked away with it, feeling a bit guilty though because I knew I might not actually read it, those stacks of unread books about the house already weighing upon me like a seven course meal when you’re not really all that hungry to begin with.

But I was wrong. Second, the book is not all that hard a read. While it probably won’t make anyone’s top ten common reader list, Piketty’s book is clearly written, concise, with well-wrought sentences, and full of remarkable insights and surprises. Consider this paragraph, the subject of which (experiential, anecdotal, or empirical data) revitalizes the current humanities in crisis folderol. Piketty says,

Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.

To be sure, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the intuitive knowledge that everyone acquires about contemporary wealth and income levels, even in the absence of any theoretical framework or statistical analysis. Film and literature, nineteenth-century novels especially, are full of detailed information about the relative wealth and living standards of different social groups, and especially about the deep structure of inequality, the way it is justified, and its impact on individual lives. Indeed, the novels of Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac paint striking portraits of the distribution of wealth in Britain and France between 1790 and 1830. Both novelists were intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of wealth in their respective societies. They grasped the hidden contours of wealth and its inevitable implications for the lives of men and women, including their marital strategies and personal hopes and disappointments. These and other novelists depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.

Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing (p. 2, Introduction, A Debate without Data?).

And we learn on page 24 of Piketty’s book (Figure I.I) that income inequality in the United States (1919-2010) was at its lowest between the years 1950 to 1980. From 1980 to today, income inequality in the US has grown steadily, and is now higher than it was during the Great Depression years. Those 30 years of comparative stability (1950-1980) allowed for a sharing of accumulation of capital and knowledge unprecedented and not seen since. The US working class achieved a remarkable degree of middle class provisions, its children went to college in unprecedented numbers, without incurring today’s debt for education, but today nearing or in retirement may be returning to its roots.

 Today’s library box held only three books, none of which I picked up: “A Nun on the Bus”; “Jesus for President”; and “Bernie Sanders: an Outsider in the White House.”

Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanities!

For more Liberations and Humanities in Crisis Revolution, see “Strangers on a TrainA chance encounter provides a lesson in complicity and the never-ending crisis in the humanities,” at Academe Online, by Cathy N. Davidson.

Photo to left is cover of Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, edited by Ihab Hassan. Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
See Richard Wasson review of Liberations in boundary 2, Duke University Press: Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 242-244. Duke University Press or JSTOR Stable URL

Happiness and the Humanities

Chris Beha’s investigative report (Harpers, Oct. 2011) on the for-profit higher education experiment is an impressionistic view of the inequities of degree access and funding. Not quite Maigret goes to [night] school, but this is US culture, the land of opportunity, and of second opportunity. Is the for-profit model hopeless? Cut to England, where the LRB Blog reports equity firms are about to seize a market opportunity: the purchasing of Universities by private hands. The degree is the product by which we’ll catch the conscience of the customer. Yet Beha suggests an important question: Is college making us happy?

Maybe college isn’t necessary or desirable for everyone. But has innovation and reform in higher education been hampered by the same self-serving forces that Joel Klein has argued explain the failure of American high schools?

It’s been a rough month for the Humanities. In Florida, there’s talk of limiting degrees offered to those that are “practical.” One wonders what those might be in the current job market. We need a new word: merittechocracy. But isn’t the market already moving in Florida’s direction? Humanities enrollment and attrition rate at UCLA suggest Westwood is no longer the bohemian capital of LA. The UCLA 2010 annual report offers more insight: “At the same time, we conducted a thorough review of our academic programs with the goal of streamlining majors, reducing unnecessary units and courses, and helping students graduate in a timely manner. We also pursued initiatives that will produce new revenue streams, including an enhanced emphasis on translational research, which will deliver more of our faculty’s inventions into the marketplace and potentially lead to licensing and royalty revenues for UCLA.” The product is big business.

But there’s a reading crisis spreading perniciously throughout the land. And reading is important. In a November, 2007, report from the National Endowment for the Arts, “To Read or Not to Read,” Chairman Dana Gioia had this to say about reading: “All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success—facts that are not especially surprising—but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed. It is reassuring, though hardly amazing, that readers attend more concerts and theater than non-readers, but it is surprising that they exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level. The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact— books change lives for the better.”

The first front on which to begin combating poverty and inequality is reading. And who’s got the books, if not the Humanities? But if the Humanities, now on the Endangered Animals list, become extinct, who will ask the question, “Are you happy now”?

The Happy Humanists of Main Street (a Fragment)

The Happy Humanists of Main Street (a Fragment): College Humanities now post their letters from Desolation Row. Yet on Main Street, the happy humanists go about their business. Lawrence, the locksmith, time on his hands, having just come back from unlocking Mrs. Tenderness’s pick-up truck, for the third time this week, so she wouldn’t be late with the doughnuts for the firehouse, returns to his Kant. Fritz, the insurance salesman, reliably opening at ten after a hearty breakfast of green eggs and ham before dropping the kids off at school, fills the office with Bach. Next door, at Cindy’s “Ye Olde Beauties’ Parlour,” filled with Dylan’s sailors, the book club holds its weekly gathering. This month, they are reading an Oprah recommendation: Where the Heart Is, by Billie Letts. But this afternoon, the shops will all close early, for Dylan’s circus is in town, and everyone wants to see the daring young man on the flying trapeze, who kicks off the show at three.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks, the Humanities department is meeting to discuss the sale of Founders’ Field, twenty acres of unused parking lot, but there’s concern the developer wants it for a Walmart. “Shouldn’t we involve the Business Association in this?” Dr. Pfleger asks. “He wants to build a golf course,” Dr. Compson says, not a Walmart. “It’s not big enough for a golf course.” “Nor a Walmart.” “Not a real golf course, one of those miniature woop woops,” Mr. Other said.

Culturomics and Google’s Ngram Viewer: More Noise?

The other day, a few minutes of wilfing led us to Technium’s post on Google’s latest project, the Ngram Viewer. Is Google making us stupid again? But this is serious stuff, as evidenced by the Ngram Viewer introduction in last December’s Science. The Ngram Viewer is a corpus allowing users to search keywords in millions of books and to quantitatively plot the results. So what? A TED video helps explain the development and potential uses. Commentary to the Science article, and to the claims made in the TED video, questions the usefulness of the Google project.

Is the Ngram Viewer an electronic Tower of Babel? We’re not sure; what are its implications, its practical uses? It appears to be an interesting cultural anthropological tool. The corpus contains “over 500 billion words,” and “cannot be read by a human.” But anyone can access it at the Culturomics site. In the Science paper, “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” the authors provide this takeaway: “Cultural change guides the concepts we discuss (such as ‘slavery’). Linguistic change – which, of course, has cultural roots – affects the words we use for those concepts (‘the Great War’ vs. ‘World War I’). In this paper, we will examine both linguistic changes, such as changes in the lexicon and grammar; and cultural phenomena, such as how we remember people and events.”

Closing the paper is a concise definition of culturomics with a touching comment on its limitations: “Culturomics is the application of high-throughput data collection and analysis to the study of human culture. Books are a beginning, but we must also incorporate newspapers (29), manuscripts (30), maps (31), artwork (32), and a myriad of other human creations (33, 34). Of course, many voices – already lost to time – lie forever beyond our reach.” (Not to mention the trunk of writing, molding in our basement for over twenty years, that we finally threw out – the poems were beginning to crawl out of the trunk, climb up the basement stairs, and haunt our dreams.) The Science paper concludes with examples of how culturomics might be used as “a new type of evidence in the humanities.” Yet some of the paper’s conclusions seem obvious: “People, too, rise to prominence, only to be forgotten.” Surely, that “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh” is not a new concept. But their discussion of the impact of censorship is interesting. In any case, the field of Humanities currently needs all the help it can get.

We played around a bit with the Ngram Viewer. In one experiment we plotted “silence” against “noise,” and found that noise overtook silence around 1961, even though 1961 is the year Wesleyan first published Silence, by John Cage. Cage would have enjoyed the Ngram Viewer. Our Ngram Viewer chart plotting silence and noise is shown below:

PLoS One sparks paradigm changes…

PLoS One sparks paradigm changes in academic and research publishing. When will the Humanities catch up? Consider the Atlantic article, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science.” The science community is ahead of the Humanities in recognizing the hoaxes of academic and scholarly publishing. But over at the FQXi Community, the physicists are having a good time writing the new fiction.

Can Business Rescue the Humanities?

While Plato ruefully proposed to banish the poet from his Republic, today’s Humanities aficionados may seek to bar businesspersons from their club. Yet the Humanities are in crisis, as usual, perhaps for lack of sound business sense, while the sound business sensors, often viewed as eschewing the Humanities, may be nipping in the basement of the human condition, where the good stuff ages.

Consider three writers whose business experience may have influenced their writing, and whose writings may calm sweating brows in the Humanities: Franz Kafka, Wallace Stevens, and Ted Kooser. Kafka worked for two insurance companies, Assicurazioni Generali, and the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, where his reports contributed to improvements in workplace safety. One report, for example, commented on “the perils of excavating in quarries while drunk.” Wallace Stevens worked for the Hartford, and, having earned a law degree from New York Law School, eventually earned a position as VP in claims, a job he valued. Few of his peers at the Hartford knew or cared about his poems, but when one of his co-workers came into his office one day asking about one of his poems, Stevens told him not to worry about it, for his co-worker was too literal. And Ted Kooser, poet laureate of the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006, spent a career at Lincoln Life, another insurance company. John Cage said that when we turn our attention to that music we do not intend, we find the sound a pleasure; just so, we must turn our attention to the Humanities we do not intend.

This benevolent blogger spent 25 years in the republic of an insurance corporation. After teaching for nearly a decade, he had taken a summer off to consider a career change, selected a national organization headquartered in his hometown of Los Angeles, and bought a new suit of clothes to prepare for the new enterprise. He had been reading Thoreau’s Walden, and was well aware of Henry’s advice, in the opening chapter, “Economy,” to “beware of all enterprises which require new clothes” (para. 15), but he nevertheless bought a new pair of wingtips, on the assumption that these were the shoes worn in the business world. He soon found he was the only one in the office in a pair of wingtips. Everyone else seemed to prefer penny loafers. Thus began his education into business. The office had bells, bells to signal the start of work, bells to signal breaks and lunches, and bells to signal the end of the workday. Indeed, the office had more bells than had any school he could remember, and he was reminded of Poe’s bells, “…Keeping time, time, time…to the throbbing…to the sobbing…to the moaning and the groaning of the bells,” though the office bells touched not the acoustic heart, being electric, and he thought too of McLuhan and Fuller – that old school prepared one to work in a factory, though he watched that factory change with locomotive speed: first the bells were freed, then the men from their ties, and more gradually the women from theirs. But these changes move not linearly, as a locomotive moves, but mosaically, and it’s often difficult to know if change in business is carrying one forward or backward. But the same is true in the Humanities, where bells and ties have also had their heydays, and specialization has now created a mosaic one can read neither “out far nor in deep.”

And one also finds in the Humanities heavy doses of alienation, particularly in the bust phase of the current devaluing of the purpose of a liberal arts education as academic acculturation adulterates, through competitive forces at work in the market place, for schools are part of the commercial marketplace, as they are increasingly discovering, yet business and schools alike continue to lobby for bailouts, and neither seems to have found a purpose and audience that is sustainable in a self-contained strategy and structure. For all the criticism of the “profits” these days, the universities may have dissed their affections once invested so heavily in the public interest. What’s left is elitism, with no access for the underclass, or, increasingly, even the middle class, but can there be a balanced elitism fueled by the working class? There was in California before Reagan set about to dismantle the best university system in the world. Still, one finds no less alienation in the Humanities than one finds in capitalism. For Marx, “the worker finds work a torment, suffers poverty, overwork and lack of fulfillment and freedom. People do not relate to each other as humans should,” but does this not describe the plight of today’s average Humanities adjunct? Why can’t schools run more like businesses? Perhaps they already do, as reflected in the competitive nature of grades, even as inflation has rendered the currency valueless.

For businesses have for some time been operating more and more like schools, creating campus atmospheres, valuing continuing education for employees, including executive training that exceeds anything available in the Humanities (Wharton is a good example), inculcating team atmospheres, and creating and running corporate universities that encourage personal, purposeful growth. But schools lack the sense of urgency that permeates the business world. Tenured professors don’t work full time, think alike (the competition is not for ideas, but to maintain the status quo), too much research is funded at the public trough yet is insulated from public view. The separation of business from the Humanities creates a false dichotomy that nevertheless suggests its own solution. The Humanities should embrace business with a sense of urgency, for their Titanic has hit its iceberg, and that the ship will sink stinks with mathematical certainty.