Notes on the Art and Style of Whiskey Radish

To my odd ears, usquebaugh, from which whiskey derives, reminds me of the wedding party that year in Berkeley, and he…, and he couldn’t say…, or, he could not pronounce…, but that was nothing to the question of how he got the overstuffed hotel room chair through the bathroom door and up to the toilet, where he “addle liddle phifie Annie ugged the little craythur” (Joyce, FW), the toilet bowl, that is, speaking or repeating “usquebaugh” to us when we asked if he wasn’t good to go. Meanwhile, Beckett seemed always ready and able to pull a root fruit from one of his pockets, a turnip or a radish, and we went back into the sleeping space, where we had a lovely view of the hotel gardens and of the ocean in the distance. The night crashed like a wave in slow motion. In the morning there were a few stale beers and day old croissants for breakfast, and everything seemed fine, but we no longer hear from Usquebaugh, who over time seems to have grown uncomfortable with the dearth, in the belief, no doubt, that wealth is Thee all purpose cleaner, and it’s no doubt true that to get things really clean you must first grow so small.

I suppose I could give Beckett a call even now and we might go off for 9 holes of pique or a day of thought at the beach or river. He was, after all, a man of action, someone who made something. But what he made had to have a use. It wasn’t enough to be a man of action; you had to be a man of practical action. What would be the point of wedding dearth?

All of which may serve as an introduction to Whiskey Radish – in as much as I actually don’t know much about whiskey, how to speak Usquebaugh, or the comics artist Whiskey Radish. So I looked it up, as James Thurber, nearly blind and with no idea “You could look it up” would evolve into “You could Google it,” suggested. Thurber was a comic who wrote and made drawings. So that’s the angle and the segue I’m going with here, as these things go, if they go at all. Segue does not at all mean uninterrupted. It simply means follows, even if what follows does not follow. You follow? What does not follow is not necessarily non sequitur. What follows is only non sequitur if your expectation was somehow otherwise. What else could he have said sitting in the big chair pulled magically into the tiny bathroom and conveniently and suitably up to the commode over which his head dangled, whispering “usquebaugh”? In any case, we were unable to repeat the magic the next morning before checking out and had to leave the chair abandoned in the bathroom. I suspect they must have had to remove the bathroom door to get the chair back out into the hotel room. There’s a cartoon there, Beckett in the plush chair pulled up to the awful all full bowl, but I’ve no caption for it, no text. “This seat taken,” maybe.

Whiskey Radish makes drawings, comic style, but with the telling swipe of a Picasso line, pen brush and ink, which include handwritten text. Comics. The narratives are characterized by obscure and everyday references, personal or learned, street lingo punctuated with French phrase suggestion. The characters are sometimes identifiable but always original, as is the case with the banjo playing “Sam Cat,” a bartender’s assistant, the lines and text sometimes sparse, laconic, suggestive, but often detailed, loquacious.

Satire and romantic themes, unrequited lines, drawings, jobs, entertainments. The life of the artist thematically underscored. There’s a “whozwho” of Whiskey Radish characters on the Whiskey Radish website. The text includes what is left out.

In the drawing enclosed, “une joile pose abandownee” (a pretty pose abandoned), we see, in black India ink over a thin acrylic base on rice paper, simple Picasso-like lines fulfill a statement that is an argument. There is a sleepiness in the eyes, a sadness, a triest, a torpor, a disappointment perhaps, or maybe that is the sense or touch or expression of abandonment, not of abandon, but of the abandonment that follows abandon, when one is not sure about one’s body, after all. And about the mouth, the lips, there is the indecisive shape of a pout that becomes a grimace that settles into a disregard, also after all. After all is said and done, whether we are finished or not, it’s over. Certain lines are crossed, crossed out, a kind of permanent erasure.

Technique is not style. Technique is something that has a beginning and an end, a procedure, a program, a convention. Technique can’t be abandoned. It can be unfinished, but that’s not the same as abandoning a work. Look at Kafka. Abandoned cartoons. Joseph K is Buster Keaton. Style is usage. Cartooning is vaudeville. You can only abandon style, because style can’t be finished. “A pretty pose abandoned” (the Whiskey Radish version) is graffiti over the 1897 “Baigneuse,” bather, by Jules Scalbert. It’s a study of a study. Do bathers pose? Is there a technique to bathing? Water paints. And the Whiskey Radish version is abandoned. Only abandonment can create style. Technique is inherited. The slow bath becomes the quick shower.

McLuhan explains: “The structural qualities of the print and woodcut obtain, also, in the cartoon, all of which share a participational and do-it-yourself character that provides a wide variety of media experiences today. The print is clue to the comic cartoon, just as the cartoon is clue to understanding the TV image” (McLuhan, 1964, “Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man,” Chapter 17, “Comics: Mad Vestibule to TV,” p. 151). Touch, McLuhan says, is the most involving of all the senses. And television, like the cartoon, is tactile; the cartoon requires audience participation. This is why we are drawn to drawings; we can participate. We must participate. We have to fill in what’s missing to get what was abandoned. We can listen to the radio while doing chores around the house, but if we turn on the television, we have to sit and watch and listen and participate, and the chores have to wait. That, for McLuhan, is the difference between hot and cool. We must get involved in a mosaic, the opposite experience from the detachment we might enjoy reading a book. “…the hot form excludes, and the cool one includes” (p. 37). Hot is technique; cool is style. The old newspaper cartoon pages were mosaics.

Considering the art and style of Whiskey Radish, we sense the abandon, the abandonment. The artist tries to bring something under control, only to give in to that control. The artist gives technique the deep-six. The cartoon disclaims and disavows, disses.

“Une joile pose abandownee” (abandonné?) is somewhere between cartoon and drawing. It’s Warhol technique; Andy was able to take a style and turn it into a technique easily reproduced. You walk away from the academic and the analysis and enter the real world, the world of cartoon and abandonment. Youth culture results from abandon and abandonment. One of the first oppressions to rebel against is the monotony of the anxiety of adultism, the balloon of the body now fully taut and now can only lose air and wither and wrinkle, lose static and fall to the floor where not even the cat will play with it anymore. The body is abandoned in cartooning. A new school of antic frantic fish frolicking in the warm water around the whale. Youth dreams are old dreams, just the same.

The copy abandoned, the idea of realism given up on, realism a losing argument, translation never finished, what’s abandoned is the drawing, a pretty drawing abandoned, that the viewer may be free.

whiskey-radish-drawing

Breaking Bad in Stromboli

Breaking Bad in StromboliI walked down to meet Susan on Hawthorne late afternoon but arrived early and when I passed Nick’s and noticed baseball on the screen I ducked in to wait at the bar for a text asking my whereabouts. I ordered a glass of milk and a coffee chaser and the bartender asked me if this was my first visit to Nick’s. The game was in the 8th inning, a 3 to 3 tie, the Dodgers against the Cubs out spring training in sunny Arizona. A group of young folk occupied the north end of the bar, but I alone watched the game. The tables were all empty. The balls were breaking late, bad, away. The Cubs scored in the bottom of the 8th on a sacrifice fly to take the lead 4 to 3, and the Dodgers in the top of the 9th could not break away. My first taste this year of spring training TV was bad for a Dodger fan. I like the Cubs, too, and hope they do better than last year’s cellar close. Edging the Dodgers 4 to 3 yesterday marked the Cubs first win in seven games this spring training season. It’s still early, but the Cubs are off to a bad start. Cub fans are a forgiving bunch. Dodger fans live in baseball paradise at Elysian Park. But baseball and paradise broke bad some time ago, came the summers of our discontent, baseball breaking away.

One of modern baseball’s design problems, as McLuhan explained, is that it’s a poor fit for television. Baseball is not pixel friendly. McLuhan saw how vaudeville moved to radio and radio to television, where there will never be enough channels, the need for distraction being what it is, even though all channels do the same thing and distract in the same way. But he did not foresee vaudeville being rekindled by Lady Gaga and Madonna in the Super Bowl arena where the camera is now a drone following the collective unconscious eye of the audience. Meantime, the living room remains the electronic middle class mosh pit. The form of television is its art; the channel hardly matters.

Yet some said that “Breaking Bad” was television finally or finely elevated to art. The art of the installment, the fix, waiting for the next episode, the episodic adventure induced by Walter who like Fagin in Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” lives and thrives in a world of children. Is breaking bad an occupational hazard of teaching resulting from classroom isolation from the real world? Or “Breaking Bad” might have been titled “Death of a Teacher,” Walter White the Willy Loman who lives on TV fantasy to avoid the existential question imposed by being crushed beneath the wheels of contemporary financial, job, metaphysical, and medical malaise. We interrupt this post to bring you a full disclosure: I never saw a single “Breaking Bad” episode when the series was running. I did read a few reviews. I recently watched the first three episodes, borrowed from the library. I was thinking I might try to see the whole thing through, to its conclusion, and angle a post off it. But I don’t want to watch any more “Breaking Bad” episodes. Predicament may harden the romantic heart in all of us.

For one thing, the premise of “Breaking Bad” seems algorithmic. A high school Chemistry teacher with experience and talent gets an existential kick in the butt when he discovers he has terminal cancer. He sees an opportunity in the two years he has left to make some quick money as a meth chef and improbably takes to a life of violent drug associated street crime. Various critical reviews suggest something philosophical going on. His street name is Heisenberg, and it’s probably true that nowhere in contemporary life are things more uncertain than out on the street, certainly not in the living room, watching television. So the existential predicament is the close proximity to death, not to be confused with the close proximity of television. But everyone dies and knows they will; why wait any time at all to break bad and kill the TV? Most people break indifferent. No life is longer than the one spent in moiling drudgery.

Then I watched Roberto Rossellini’s “Stromboli” (1950). Essentially, Ingrid Bergman’s Karin’s existential predicament is similar to Walter White’s, though even more absurd, because she’s saved but ironically condemned to live in a place and with a man she believes she’s entirely unsuited for, which comes with the surprise of the epiphany. The island of Stromboli is a Mediterranean volcano. Life is harsh. Karin was expecting something a bit more pleasant, romantic, colorful. Life on Stromboli is inescapable sun or impervious shadow. The people on Stromboli live under the constant threat of volcanic eruption. Their values are kept immutable by the impossibility of change. Unlike the Mario by the end of “Il Postino,” Karin can’t see any beauty on her island or in the fishing life. It doesn’t take her long to realize she must break bad. But Karin breaks bad differently from Walter. She frantically climbs the volcano that Walter pedantically runs from.

Note: No commas were mistreated in the writing of this post.

Memories and Hallucinations, Real Nostalgia: Bill Bryson’s “The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid”

Electric WaterfallThe notion things change fast doubles in intensity roughly every two days. It takes a couple of days for most changes to sink in. “Who moved the cat dish?” I ask, combing out dry crumbs from between my toes. “Oh, I changed that the other day,” Susan says. Moore’s law observed amplifying speeds doubling every two years. Too bad the Market hasn’t managed as well. If we understand the laws influencing changes, we’re able to merge smoothly into the new wave. Joe’s law says internal speeds slow inversely to external speeds. As the speed of life increases, what we’re feeling inside slows to a crawl. I can feel the cornstarch thickening in my spinning stomach. The waves keep coming. We can roll under, ride up and over, dive through, or turn around and catch one. We get out of the water and consider our memoir, what just happened, what just changed. The waves look different from the beach, not what we remember at all. We get our breath back. We consider the last wipeout.

What is change? Do things actually change, or do we simply wake up one morning and remember things differently? Oliver Sacks, in “Speak, Memory” (New York Review of Books), his title borrowed from Nabokov’s memoir, said, “There is no easy way of distinguishing a genuine memory or inspiration, felt as such, from those that have been borrowed or suggested.” Our experiences – real, imagined, vicarious, read, heard – become stories we retell. “Memory is dialogic,” Sacks says (made from communication with others), “and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.” I’ve only read a portion of Sacks’s latest book, “Hallucinations,” an excerpt, “Altered States: Self-experiments in chemistry,” in the 27 Aug 2012 New Yorker. How does Sacks remember anything? Stories like Sacks’s always remind me of a Salvador Dali interview. When asked if he took drugs to produce his surreal art, Dali responded: “Why should I take the drug? I am the drug.” But Sacks obviously has a good memory, or memories. What’s a good memory?

Speaking of hallucinations and memories, I’ve just finished a Bill Bryson book, recommended by Susan, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir” (Random House, 2006). Bryson was born in 1951, and the book is about him growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1950’s. We see his memory at work, his memory assisted by a bibliography of books about the world he was born into. That world is given particular focus through his witty anecdotes of home, neighborhood, school, and town, personal reflections mixed in with the historical, researched view. It’s an easy to read, enjoyable book, almost subversive the way he works into the telling what might otherwise be a dry history book. We learn, or are reminded, of much of 1950’s culture, politics, family and societal values. Most of the telling, while written for an adult audience, sounds like it’s coming from a kid’s attitude. The kid reports what’s happening to him, but he doesn’t always understand why it’s happening – several levels of irony at work. Susan set me up. “Read this page,” she said, handing me the book one day, “out loud.” I did, and when I got to the bottom I laughed out loud. I didn’t see the joke coming. Bryson figures things out, like the rest of us, a kid on the go. It helps to remember some things. Other things, it helps to forget. “Grape was the one flavor that could actually make you hallucinate; I once saw to the edge of the universe while drinking grape Nehi” (278) Bryson says, blending Dali with Sacks.

Bryson is a prolific writer with an encyclopedic style. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the details, facts, numbers, all startling, though you might have been there, too. The chapter on the Bomb brought back memories of the classic classroom aid raid drills where kids practiced scrunching under their school desks in preparation for atomic attack. No wonder the generation grew cynical. Really, these desks were going to protect us? From what? Not from our memories. Here’s an example of how Bryson blends the personal with the researched: “I watched a lot of television in those days. We all did. By 1955, the average American child had watched five thousand hours of television, up from zero hours five years earlier” (279). And then he lists his favorite shows, a bunch of them. His favorite show was the “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show,” which pretty much spanned the 50’s. The key word back there is average, which Bryson was not, but no one is average. Individuals are too unique for any kind of averaging that makes sense (“People are Strange,” sang The Doors, a decade later). For one thing, it doesn’t sound like Bryson watched much TV with his family, but alone, in his bedroom, after he had collected enough cash on a paper route to buy his own TV. Most families I knew had but one television set, and it occupied the living room, an electronic shrine. In our house, it was a shrine, a statue of Mary on top standing on a doily and leaning against the antennae – its tips wrapped in tin foil to improve reception. For a time, it’s where we prayed the rosary together, for which the TV had to be off, though. But the concept of average is a Madison Avenue marketing ploy, and in school, average was a way of keeping kids in line. Anyway, remember the end of the broadcast day, the eerie signal that accompanied the black and white lined diagram on a field of gray, the tubes glowing red-orange like stationary fireflies? Or did I hallucinate that? Then came the teen years and kids grew subversive by not watching TV, while their parents watched the war every night around 6, just before prime time.

The notion that decades of years fix boundaries of anything is silly, but as we leave Bryson’s book on the 1950’s, we are reminded that everything the decade is remembered for is all gone. There is nothing left of the 1950’s. Everything has changed, and while the 1950’s certainly rang up a toll of bad stuff, all dutifully set down by Bryson, the fact that everything changed is not necessarily a good thing. Gone is the closeness, the walks downtown to the grand theatres, the churchyard dinners, the thousands of family owned farms, the tiny farmhouses under trees alongside two lane roads that passed through small towns. Bryson’s view of the 1950’s is a view of a kid growing up in the 50’s. His preference for something like the “Burns and Allen Show” points to something important: George and Gracie were not products of the 1950’s. They came from a different era, their TV show an example of McLuhan’s theory that every new technology takes its content from the content of a previous form: picaresque to vaudeville to radio to TV. It might have looked new, but it was already old. But today things move so fast that we can hardly calculate those changes. Certainly it doesn’t any longer take a decade. Already everything from two days ago is changed, if not two hours ago, if not from the beginning of this post. Dang! I just put my foot down into the kitty litter box. I would like to say I’m going for a swim, but someone moved the ocean.

Online # 2: Laptop Notes From Underground

Notes from an Underground LaptopImagine Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man with a laptop…

“‘Why you’re . . . just like a book,’ she said, and I thought I caught a sarcastic note in her voice again.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is with Liza, a prostitute, but what he wants is to talk to her. He finds her ellipsis revealing. She pauses, and she’s caught the mouse in a trap, even if she didn’t mean to. He mistakes her uncertainty for sarcasm: “I didn’t understand that sarcasm is a screen – the last refuge of shy, pure persons against those who rudely and insistently try to break into their hearts” (174), he says. Four pages of rant follow, and he makes her cry. But she’s his perfect audience. Had he a laptop, he would have pulled something up to show her. But was she being sarcastic, or was she reading him literally? What she says is accurate; he is just like a book.

“It goes without saying that both these Notes and their author are fictitious,” Dostoyevsky says in a footnote to the first page of “Notes from Underground,” which begins with “Part One, The Mousehole” (90). If it goes without saying, why does he say it? Another paradox. The typographical man develops a voice, even if he has nothing to say. Online, we feel a part of something, but of what? It’s enough to feel connected. In any case, these men do exist, in spite of this one being fiction, Dostoyevsky wants to make clear, and he wants to mark the difference between narrator and author. But in trying to distance himself from his narrator, Dostoyevsky adds another note to the pile.

I’m online again, going with the flow, superslow though, gliding, electri-gliding in the cerulean world of blues. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” Hank Williams sang. But does he cry? He doesn’t tell us that he cries, just that he feels like crying. If only Hank had a laptop. How high the moon? He could look it up.

“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” (118)*, the Underground Man says. Later, Jung takes up this theme, that consciousness is born in regret, in memory. But how does man express his regret, which is his suffering? “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said (257). What do we think about if we can’t remember anything? After reason, the Underground Man explains, “All that’ll be left for us will be to block off our five senses and plunge into contemplation” (118).

We were talking about the possibility that online culture diminishes memory because the “onliner” (i.e. someone online, not necessarily a reader, since one can go online without reading – but what is reading?) is constantly looking things up, one thing leading to the next, seemingly random. Nothing is memorized; the bookmarks are endless. If the fall is into language, browsing is free falling. But why all the notetaking in book culture? Can’t the readers remember anything? Non-literate people, McLuhan explains in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” have much better memories than those born to books. Is there suffering being online? “The most obvious character of print is repetition, just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession,” McLuhan says (47).

“I was so used to imagining everything happening the way it does in books and visualizing things falling somehow into the shape of my old daydreams that at first I didn’t understand what was going on. What actually happened was that Liza, whom I had humiliated and crushed, understood much more than I had thought. Out of all I had said, she had understood what a sincerely loving woman would understand first – that I myself was unhappy” (197). The Underground Man is stuck in a literate view. McLuhan: “The new collective unconscious Pope saw as the accumulating backwash of private self-expression” (308). The Underground Man’s literacy has turned him into an individual, and he’s nowhere to go. This is another reason he appears when he does; his point of view is his own beacon.

The sufferer comments. This is why the Underground Man “has appeared, and could not help but appear” (90), to explain why he has appeared. The browser joins the Internet commute, changing lanes compulsively but leisurely. Summer is near, and in the distance one can hear the Internet Highway and superfast modems melting across asphalt desks backlit with electric candles. A commenter interrupts the flow, but for the Underground Man with a laptop, comments are closed. Go start your own blog. I’m in the slow lane here. Go around me, he signals out his laptop window. Go around.

“I knew that what I was saying was contrived, even ‘literary’ stuff, but then, that was the only way I knew how to speak – ‘like a book,’ as she had put it” (179). The Underground Man is literate; Liza is not. But Liza intuits what the Underground Man must read. McLuhan explains the difference: “The visual makes for the explicit, the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space'” (GG 73).

“Enough,” the Underground Man says, but the closing footnote says there are more notes. “But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here” (203), Dostoyevsky says.

* My text (Signet Classic CT300, 1961, Seventh Printing, translation by Andrew R. MacAndrew), reads, “Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness.” But I exchanged just this line for the Constance Garnett version of the line, which I prefer for its sole (solo) and soul homonymy (not to mention the suggestion of the sole of a shoe).

Mosaic Writing

McLuhan suggested we pay a price for literacy. There’s a difference between illiteracy and non-literacy. An illiterate person can neither read nor write written texts in his native language, while a non-literate person’s language has no written text, no alphabet.

It’s moving from non-literacy to literacy where a price is paid: “The visual makes for the explicit,” McLuhan said, “the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space'” (GG, 73).

Thus the “World Wide Web” may be promoting a kind of non-literacy, where the mosaic form of presentation dominates the chronological, the linear, the literate, where the literate means a fixed point of view: “This visualizing of chronological sequences is unknown to oral societies, as it is now irrelevant in the electric age of information movement” (GG, 72).
Yet, McLuhan reminds us that “only a fraction of the history of literacy has been typographic” (GG, 93).

So, what’s the price? For one thing, McLuhan said, “the divorce of poetry and music was first reflected by the printed page” (GG, 240).

And all the effort we’ve put into learning to read left to right, up to down, front to back – when presented with a mosaic, we don’t know where to begin reading. We may not know how to read mosaic writing. The Internet is a mosaic. And as we learn to read on the Internet, we may be losing our preference for, and the skills required to read, sequential writing.

Some excellent examples of Mosaic Writing include:
“Silence” and “A Year from Monday,” by John Cage
“Finnegans Wake,” by James Joyce
“Love’s Body,” by Norman O. Brown
“The Guttenberg Galaxy,” by Marshall McLuhan

Now Playing at Plato’s Cave: “The Reel World”

Plato opened the first movie theatre, the audience chained to seats, unable to see the projectionist, and there were no refreshments or intermissions. You really had to be a movie buff to enjoy a film at Plato’s Cave.

McLuhan (Understanding Media, 1964) explained that we must be trained to see movies, for “movies assume a high level of literacy in their users and prove baffling to the nonliterate [the unlit].” If a man disappears from the screen, the nonliterate wants to know where he went. “But the film audience, like the book reader, accepts mere sequence as rational.” And perspective is gravity, gravitas. The nonliterate will not sit still and be quiet in a movie theatre. They lack the requisite cultural-etiquette training, which requires the natural, balanced sensorium (the five senses tuned so that no one sense dominates another) to be dominated by the sense of sight. “For those who thus fix their eyes,” McLuhan explains, “perspective results.” This is why hot buttered popcorn is so popular in movie theatres – the nose is hard-pressed to go two hours with nothing to smell. The movie theatre is the new voting booth, where we learn both what we’re missing and what we want. “What the Orient saw in a Hollywood movie was a world in which all the ordinary people had cars and electric stoves and refrigerators…That is another way of getting a view of the film medium as monster ad for consumer goods,” McLuhan said.

There are things we don’t want to see, movies we’ve no interest in, TV shows we channel surf away from, books we self-remainder to the rummage sale. We avoid certain conversations, too, closing our ears now to the sacred, now to the profane; there are things we don’t want to hear. Yet touch is the most involving of the senses, and the sense of smell is stronger than the sense of sight, and is tied to taste. Thus we say of a bad movie that it stinks. We instinctually avert our eyes from the ghastly, but when we want to see what we don’t want to look at, we go to the movies. “It is a spectacle,” Wallace Stevens said (“Chaos in Motion and Not in Motion,” 1945), “Scene 10 becomes 11 / In Series X, Act IV, et cetera. / People fall out of windows, trees tumble down, / Summer is changed to winter, the young grow old, / The air is full of children, statues, roofs / And snow. The theatre is spinning round,….”

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John: 20-29). Blessed today might be those who have seen and yet still believe. Yet “a fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake said in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” (and which the neuroscientists are busy trying to explain). What should we see; what should we read? What are our choices? “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else,” John Cage said, in his “Lecture on Nothing” (Silence, 1973). Just so, Cage gives us 4’33” of silence, but not silence, for we hear what we hear, note what we note, for we have eyes to see, ears to hear. McLuhan predicted YouTube: “Soon everyone will be able to have a small, inexpensive film projector that plays an 8-mm sound cartridge as if on a TV screen. This type of development is part of our present technological implosion.”

The blogger gets McLuhan’s argument: “The typewriter…has caused an integration of functions and the creation of much private independence. G. K. Chesterton demurred about this new independence as a delusion, remarking that ‘women refused to be dictated to and went out and became stenographers.’” Just so, academics are beginning to refuse the traditional forms of sanctioned publishing, for the potential to blog brings about, as McLuhan said of the typewriter, “an entirely new attitude to the written and printed word.” Back inside Plato’s Cave and McLuhan’s (via Joyce) “reel world,” some critic tries to discern what we’re actually seeing and hearing, as if we don’t have eyes to see, ears to hear. Well, yes, but we can’t see the real thing. Behold, human beings living in an underground cave, blogging. This is a world of appearances, through a glass, lightly shuttering.

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.