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.

The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,” says Mark Twain’s duke as he prepares to take down the house with an encore of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Where’s an English major when you need one? They were no doubt in short supply in the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century, and their heyday from the late twentieth appears now to be in full wane. What can restore their numbers?

To take the meds, or not to take the meds; that is another question. Before you answer, read Louis Menand’s recent review, “Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?,” in the March 1 New Yorker:  “These complaints [confusion over what causes and cures depression] are not coming just from sociologists, English professors, and other troublemakers” (68). To be an English major or not to be an English major; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to go broke reading or to take arms with others in self-incarceration in a corporate complex – but alas, those late twentieth century opportunities to cause trouble too are in full wane. What’s a poor boy to do?

Work, for one: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Some did, but many seem now to have forgotten this. A past issue of Reed College’s Reed Magazine, for example, contained an article by one of their English professors selling the English major; unfortunately, it was clear that the professor had never worked outside of academia, and had not much idea what one would do with one’s English major aside from finding shelter in academia – but that’s all over. Yet no mention in the article of Kafka’s time as a claim investigator for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (where he invented the hard-hat); of Ted Kooser’s stint at Lincoln Life; of Wallace Stevens’s career at The Hartford; of Tom Clancy maintaining his Life license even after he became a best-seller.

“Questions like these [being and nothingness, as Sartre put it] are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them” (Menand, p. 74). Yet as most of today’s Hucks head out for the territory of science and technology, leaving the books to turn to dust, some professors seem to be hunkering down; how do you like this solution: “…it [solving the crisis in the Humanities] means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years, for the broadest range of talented people of all sorts and conditions whom we can educate and then employ productively and decently”? This non-profound non-market solution comes to us courtesy of Anthony T. Grafton of Princeton who seems to miss the working point that Rexroth talked about and proves Menand’s point of stubborn resistance.  In his New Republic critical reaction to The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in The American University (Menand, 2010), Grafton makes graduate school sound like joining the Jesuits; but who provides financial support for the Jesuits? For the young Ginsberg just starting out today, a job as a market researcher might be a sweet assignment.

“Oh, God,” Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” No bad dreams, no harrowing questions, no need for the philosopher or the English major. But while the meds, according to Menand’s review, might help some with some of the bad dreams, the harrowing questions persist.

*Meltzer, D. (1971). The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books.

Hemingway surfing and writing

Timing is everything

at Leo Carillo, 1969.

We’ve been enjoying the El Porto Fridays blog. We can still feel the El Porto sand beneath our feet, the foam rushing over our board, the morning glass, the afternoon chop, the evening glass-off. We surfed there in the 60’s and 70’s, before heading out, like Huck Finns, for the territory, ahead of all the rest; well, ahead of some, behind others. The El Porto Fridays blog recently put up a post titled “5 Ways to Improve Your Surfing.” It had us thinking of Shaun Tomson’s Surfer’s Code, and of Hemingway and writing. 

A sentence is like a wave, as Hemingway often illustrated; Hemingway didn’t surf, but he does have Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises body surfing, and this famous sentence from the short story “Cross Country Snow” illustrates what could be a surfer on a wave:

“George was coming down in telemark position, kneeling; one leg forward and bent, the other trailing; his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow as they touched the surface and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in a wild cloud of snow.”

Reading Roland Barthes’s Writing Degree Zero on Line 15

What would Roland Barthes have said about the snippets of poetry published among the ad displays, public service announcements, and caution notes headlining the interior of local bus Line 15?

 

The poetry placards please riders through a program called, somewhat fancifully, Poetry in Motion, though the poems move relative only to someone off the bus. For the rider/reader, the poems move at the same speed as everything else on the bus, with the exception of the rider just boarding, stumbling down the aisle in the opposite direction of the bus lurching forward. It’s a good idea to wait until seated before trying to read the poetry. In any case, why not call the poems, simply, “Bus Poems”?   

 

But what’s remarkable is the number of riders and therefore potential readers of the poetry, “reaching an estimated 15 million daily [countrywide],” according to the Tri-Met site. Poetry never had it so good.

 

Readers may be reminded of Johnny Tillotson’s 1961 hit song “Poetry in Motion.” The refrain of Tillotson’s song seems particularly apt to the riders on Line 15: “…For all the world to see.

a-woe woe woe woe woe woe.” Find out more about Poetry in Motion at the Poetry Society, or at the Tri-Met site: Selections for 2007, or check out the British original Poems on the Underground, including Autumn/Winter 2008 selections, which celebrate the 1918 Armistice.

 

A random search adds to the randomness of the entire enterprise with this from Charles Bukowski, the bard of beer, on poetry and motion– locomotively, as Bukowski is seen displaying his full critical license (not for the poetically squeamish). We’ve not seen any Bukowski poems on the bus – though there are times on the bus when we feel we are in his company.

 

Which brings us back to Barthes, who found deconstructing poetry difficult, since the pieces already cover the floor in various stages of disassembly: “…what is attempted [in modern poetry] is to eliminate the intention to establish relationships and to produce instead an explosion of words…since…modern poetry…destroys the spontaneously functional nature of language, and leaves standing only its lexical basis” (p. 46). This sounds like a bus ride. “The Hunger of the Word, common to the whole of modern poetry, makes poetic speech terrible and inhuman. It initiates a discourse full of gaps and full of lights, filled with absences and over-nourishing signs, without foresight or stability of intention, and thereby so opposed to the social function of language…” (p. 48). “…modern poetry destroyed relationships in language and reduced discourse to words as static things” (p. 49). Maybe that’s why they decided to put some on the buses.

 

The audience on the Line 15 bus shifts slightly at every stop, and every bus ride is already a poem in motion, riders hopping on, hopping off, each a word, or a line, some a full verse, the bus curtsying occasionally, its caution bell bleeping, as it leans down to pick up a rider unable to hop, poems and riders waiting patiently motionless, the big scurrilous bus a measure of notes transpiring.

"On the Road," a Bus Poem by Ted Kooser on Line 15

“On the Road,” a Bus Poem by Ted Kooser on Line 15