Monthly Archives: August 2012


5. Before and After Mass Culture as “Ominous External Force”

Dear Mark,

On to your point 5. My comments below itemize several of the questions I have concerning how to think about what the Red Book does to mass culture and what mass culture does to higher ed.

5. The Red Book is symptomatically silent on the subject of mass culture as a competing unifier. The issue comes up briefly in the final pages: “The press, radio, photography, television–our progressive disembodiment–and indeed all increased means of mass communication have their dangers too.” The authors seem particularly concerned about advertising: “‘In a world of strife, there is peace in beer.’ That slogan was no invention of a satirist. It adorned many a newspaper in the days before Pearl Harbor and is but one example, less harmful through its very fatuousness, of the modes of attack to which mass communication exposes standards in all fields. Against them we can only oppose general education at all levels” (266). Apparently, effective opposition won’t require knowledge of the adversary, since there is no place whatsoever for “mass communications” in general education as Harvard imagines it. What a difference from the situation before the war! Then, the problem of “mass culture,” how to learn from and about it, was absolutely central to considerations of the problem of democracy (e.g., in the Lippmann-Dewey debate) and the university both. Again, more research is needed, but this seems like a representative example of a familliar configuration: a particular notion of English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities, which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math); mass culture appears as an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation.

Before the Red Book authors turn to the dangers of mass culture upon which you focus, please remember that they also briefly imagine the pedagogical possibilities of visual mass media.

…the needed boost to conventional texts may come through an extension and supplementing of them by films and television. In both there is much experimenting and postulate searching in progress. For their more sustained enterprises–language teaching and continuous courses of study–films and television alike require printed matter designed to have a live relation to the sound-motion presentation. The challenge to the text is given when the screen ceases to be a mere illustration or adornment to the language and becomes the equal or superior means of communication. (262-63)

There’s more after this passage as the authors glance at the problem of print v. visual mediation and as they mull the supplementing of textbook based course materials in vocational v. “general subjects.” Note especially their citation of the Commission on Motion Pictures in Education regarding the use of visual media in training for war (as debates over video games today suggest, this particular educational question is evergreen) (263). And note the conventional wisdom that films (I don’t think they mean only documentary or “educational” films) “can present a theme, biographic, historic, or moral, with a massiveness of impact” (264).

Two observations about this treatment:

One, the Red Book authors do not appear to intend supplement in the Derridean sense, although it is hard to read their use of the term in any other way.

Two, there is little implication that one might actually study mass media, instead of using it to amplifying textbooks, etc. We are not to imagine that professors might find in visual mass culture new teachable “examples,” to use Ralph Berry’s term from an earlier thread on this blog.

In order to treat mass media this way, as having a limited experimental role in the classroom, as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education, as (you put it) “an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation,” one has to completely forget the early-century debates about including mass media in great books curricula and the like. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, I read this as willful forgetting (can the Red Book authors really be ignorant of the fact that “experimenting” with mass culture in the classroom had been going on for several decades?).

If not willful, then purposeful forgetting. If English literature, which was itself so recently an “experimental” contributor to university curricula, is to appear so foundational to the humanities in the Red Book, it must need a more youthful, insurgent media against which to compare itself. (Flurry of footnotes concerning the transatlantic genealogy of this move: to the Leavisite strategy of presenting literature as a defense against [American] mass culture, to the efforts of British educators like John Churton Collins trying to get English courses out of the extension schools and into the universities at the turn of the 20th century, etc.)

By ignoring the past, the Red Book predicts the future. Its rhetoric anticipates later 20th century conventional wisdom that film and media studies is an insurgency. Even as they have established a firm footing in universities around the world, mass media bizarrely remain a dangerous supplement: “The Lady Gaga-fication of Higher Ed” is a real and present danger (at your University of South Carolina no less!). The way scary Gaga featured in the recent UVA debacle suggests there is a richly textured politics involved in distinguishing good from bad new media. Wherein good equals MOOC and bad equals Gaga? Or vice versa. For all that both MOOCs and Gaga appear shocking and novel to some, the contest between them reworks old promises and fears. We only make the mistake of thinking that massification in its various forms (massification of the media we study, of the pedagogy we practice, etc.) is a novelty when we forget the history of higher ed, treat Harvard rather than the early-twentieth-century extension programs as the true innovators of humanities study, and behave as if mass media are newcomers to the university.

One of the things we must understand better, and you direct us to this as well in your 5., is the way mass culture means very different things across the disciplines. “English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities,” you write, “which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math).” Distinguished in part, perhaps, by how they greet mass culture and treat its potential to disrupt teaching and research. The story of the relationship between the humanities and mass media is not the same as that between English and mass media, clearly, but neither is it the same as that between history or sociology and mass media. (Another footnote flurry.)

I want to find a way to get from Red Book / mass culture to the Digital Humanities part of our argument, and in lieu of patiently detailing the logical links leading from one to the other (which, don’t doubt me, I can provide and will surely do so forthwith), please enjoy this rhetorical leap.

It can sometimes seem as though the Digital Humanities discussion reproduces the habit of elevating English, making it stand in for the humanities more generally, and in so doing reinforcing the centrality of a curriculum devoid of most mass cultural materials (novels excluded). This despite the more easily massified media in which DH traffics. This despite the sense that English is a place where anyone can study anything.

Piece of evidence the first: Matthew G. Kirshenbaum’s essay in the 2010 ADE Bulletin entitled “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?

Towards the end of his essay, Kirshenbaum sums up in six points “why English departments have historically been hospitable settings” for DH work. All six points have interest. Two seem to me absolutely antithetical, and in a familiar way.

First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.

Fifth is the openness of English departments to cultural studies, where computers and other objects of digital material culture become the centerpiece of analysis. (60)

So good to have it both ways. DH is no more a threat to English as usual than was cultural studies, nor should DH make English the least bit worried by the presence of other D media in other wings of the H.

Piece of evidence the second: Andrew Prescott’s July 2012 lecture to the Digital Humanities Summer School, Oxford University entitled “Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges.”

Although Prescott indicates that he subscribes “to a point of view which sees Super Mario or Coronation Street or Shrek as just as culturally interesting and significant as Ovid and Chaucer,” when it comes to DH projects that get funding and get done, there’s more Ovid than Corrie.

For all the rhetoric about digital technologies changing the humanities, the overwhelming picture presented by the activities of digital humanities centres in Great Britain is that they are busily engaged in turning back the intellectual clock and reinstating a view of the humanities appropriate to the 1950s which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane.

(Crane’s 1967 The Idea of the Humanities has material for us, btw. Some juicy excerpts here.)

At Prescott’s King’s College London,

Of the 88 content creation projects listed, only 8 are concerned in any way with anything that happened after 1850. The overwhelming majority – some 57 projects – deal with subjects from before 1600, and indeed most of them are concerned with the earliest periods, before 1100. The geographical focus of most of the projects are on the classical world and western Europe. The figures that loom largest are standard cultural icons: Ovid, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Chopin. This is an old-style humanities, dressed out in bright new clothes for the digital age.

Only Chopin (maybe Ovid) likely would be left off the list of literary works at the heart of the Red Book English curriculum.

How to remedy the situation? Prescott’s answer:

We might start by seeking closer contact with our colleagues in Cultural and Media Studies. There is a huge body of scholarship on digital cultures with which we engage only patchily and which offers us powerful critical frameworks in articulating our own scholarly programme.

English is “open” to cultural studies, as Kirshenbaum says, and certainly thinks of itself as less overtly antagonistic to mass culture today, but you and I would clearly agree with Prescott that English engages with media studies scholarship and media studies scholars “patchily.”

Compare this program to History, or the version of what DH means for that discipline offered by Roy Rosenzweig, who begins his influential essay “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past” by asking how future historians will grapple with the complex itinerary of Evil Bert.

Please forgive this longish quote that you probably already know:

In 1996, Dino Ignacio, a twenty-two-year-old Filipino web designer, created Bert Is Evil (“brought to you by the letter H and the CIA”), which became a cult favorite among early tourists on the World Wide Web. Two years later, Bert Is Evil won a “Webby” as the “best weird site.” Fan and “mirror” sites appeared with some embellishing on the “Bert Is Evil” theme. After the bombing of the U. S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, sites in the Netherlands and Canada paired Bert with Osama bin Laden.

This image made a further global leap after September 11. When Mostafa Kamal, the production manager of a print shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, needed some images of bin Laden for anti-American posters, he apparently entered the phrase “Osama bin Laden” in Google’s image search engine. The Osama and Bert duo was among the top hits. “Sesame Street” being less popular in Bangladesh than in the Philippines, Kamal thought the picture a nice addition to an Osama collage. But when this transnational circuit of imagery made its way back to more Sesame Street–friendly parts of the world via a Reuters photo of anti-American demonstrators, a storm of indignation erupted. Children’s Television Workshop, the show’s producers, threatened legal action. On October 11, 2001, a nervous Ignacio pushed the delete key, imploring “all fans [sic] and mirror site hosts of ‘Bert is Evil’ to stop the spread of this site too.”

Ignacio’s sudden deletion of Bert should capture our interest as historians since it dramatically illustrates the fragility of evidence in the digital era. If Ignacio had published his satire in a book or magazine, it would sit on thousands of library shelves rather than having a more fugitive existence as magnetic impulses on a web server. Although some historians might object that the Bert Is Evil web site is of little historical significance, even traditional historians should worry about what the digital era might mean for the historical record. U. S. government records, for example, are being lost on a daily basis. Although most government agencies started using e-mail and word processing in the mid-1980s, the National Archives still does not require that digital records be retained in that form, and governmental employees profess confusion over whether they should be preserving electronic files. 3 Future historians may be unable to ascertain not only whether Bert is evil, but also which undersecretaries of defense were evil, or at least favored the concepts of the “evil empire” or the “axis of evil.” Not only are ephemera like “Bert” and government records made vulnerable by digitization, but so are traditional works—books, journals, and film—that are increasingly being born digitally. As yet, no one has figured out how to ensure that the digital present will be available to the future’s historians.

Nearly everything about historical research appears to be put into question for Rosenzweig by digitization. That Bert would be an object of study for political historians, that preserving the archive becomes a very different matter if you’re talking about evil Bert instead of a 16th century manuscript, that there are experts on Bert who do not have tenure-track jobs, etc. “The struggle to incorporate the possibilities of new technology into the ancient practice of history has led, most importantly, to questioning the basic goals and methods of our craft.” You sometimes still hear such things said about DH in English, but I’d say less so than you used to. Rosenzweig’s essay was published in 2003, but it is difficult to imagine how the lid would have been put back on in the years since. Mass culture and digital technology conspire to alter History in ways that they seem not to have altered English?

As a bit of a side bar, I desperately want to correlate this kind of interdisciplinary comparison to your hypothesis about the abiding hierarchy among humanities departments. In your last post you wrote:

Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

Scale is important to Rosenzweig too and might lead us back once again to questions about neoliberal higher ed and its MOOCs, about what Jacques Berlinerblau calls “engaged humanism” in a recent Chronicle column, and to a bunch of other issues we’ve been kicking around for a while.

English has more resources than many humanities departments and tends to have bigger departments, so it can fund more graduate students getting PhDs in the study of, for instance, video games than other smaller departments. The paradox being, this neither appears to alter the status of literature within English curricula (especially undergraduate) nor the status of English within the humanities. That’s one scale, the scale of the department and the humanities division.

Another, the scale of the classroom, seems much more threatening to English. We have yet to fully unpack this problem to our liking, is my sense, but I consider it important that we figure out how to do so. English professors have historically delivered their vital texts to students in lecture halls and discussion classes. Some of these are big, but none as big as the MOOCs get. Scale here has something to do with pedagogy (and testing), but it also has to do with prestige. Our literary “examples” circulate in particular ways within prestige granting as well as degree awarding institutions. Jefferson and Jackson redux. The problem, again, for the Red Book of how to scale a kind of teaching that seems most at home in places like Harvard. As Carlo Salerno puts it in Inside Higher Ed, “Our higher education system needs MOOCs to provide credentials in order for students to find it worthwhile to invest the effort, yet colleges can’t afford to provide MOOC credentials without sacrificing prestige, giving up control of the quality of the students who take their courses and running the risk of eventually diluting the value of their education brand in the eyes of the labor market.”

Before the Red Book, the MOOCs of the day were the extension programs, which in the British examples described by Alexandra Lawrie (“Browning in Hackney,” TLS January 20 2012: 14-15) anticipated their on-line brethren in allowing students to make the choice of whether they were interested only in listening to lectures or also in writing papers and seeking a credential.

In the Lent 1892 course in Lewisham on “Great Novelists of the Nineteenth Century,” taught by John A. Hobson, for example, fifty of the 100-strong audience at his lectures stayed for the class, yet only an average of twelve submitted papers to be marked each week. (14)

In extension classes as in MOOCs, there is a need to rethink the correlation between material studied and demographics served that is every bit as challenging as the Jacksonian/Jeffersonian debate stages in the Red Book. We should not take the Red Book as THE model for the university, the prevalence of competing models from the 1890s to the 2010s suggest, any more than we should take the Red Book’s version of the humanities as the ideal.

Today, Berlinerblau wants “engaged humanists who know less and communicate better,” while Rosenzweig imagines that new technology might democratize history in a fashion reminiscent of its early-twentieth-century mode, in which “the vision and membership of the American Historical Association–embracing archivists, local historians, and ‘amateurs’ as well as university scholars–was considerably broader than it later became.” Both the masses and mass culture (even Evil Bert) could find a home at the AHA, but we need not think that the hierarchy within the AHA was entirely flattened as a result. For this reason, democratize is perhaps the wrong word to use. Instead, the shifting sands of governmentality.


4. Until Further Notice: By 1945, but Not Before 1935, the Humanities Were Made Isomorphic With English

Dear John,

I like this plan. Let’s drive on to Red Book issue #5 and return to the strange career of English Departments later on. Let me add two observations for that later discussion.

First, to the investigation of Richards you propose, I think we should add some consideration of the American Studies types that Graff finds it difficult to incorporate in his account of mid-century English, such that he has to loop back and tell the story again in the chapter “The Promise of American Literature Studies.” There, Graff identifies an alternative trajectory despised by Northrop Frye for its interdisciplinarity in 1957 and identifiable as early as 1948 in Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision, which characterizes “‘modern criticism’ as ‘the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature‘” (Graff 209-10). We should look at Hyman. Graff also makes much of the difference between V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30), which treated literary works part of a broader intellectual history, and F.O. Mattheissen (and numerous others listed on page 216) who “conceived the organic structure of a literary work as a microcosm of collective psychology or myth and thus made New Criticism into a method of cultural analysis” (217). Tellingly missing from Graff’s English- and university- centered story are at least two influential humanists of the 1920s and 30s who wrote broadly on US culture and are looked to as generative in a number of disciplines: Lewis Mumford and Gilbert Seldes. I read a lot of this stuff back in the day, and would welcome a chance to revisit it. Also worth reevaluating from the vantage of the present is Graff’s conclusion that this entire trajectory is one of “‘patterned isolation’.” As he sees it, “cultural history” failed “to become a centralizing context,” and this “created a vacuum that was readily filled by an attenuated New Criticism of explication for explication’s sake” (225). If we shift our attention from the evils and virtues of New Criticism to the problem of when and how the study of “literature” seems to equal the study of “culture” or the “humanist” approach to it, I suspect this history will look rather different.

Second, I agree that we need follow this through the “1960s-80s debates concerning the hold of great English books on undergraduate education” as you state. I think as a result of those debates English Departments become more powerful than ever before, even if less coherently organized around a single literary mission. This was the period that invented the version of the English Department we now inhabit, which simultaneously claims that all of “culture” is within its purview and purports to be the special custodian of a distinctly literary knowledge and heritage. Key intellectual developments encouraged this state of affairs. For example, we’ve discussed already the importation of formalisms and structuralisms that allowed English professors to define themselves as experts in “narrative” or “texts” and authorized transposition of procedures for reading novels or poems onto any expressive medium. But there is another, perhaps less familiar, way to tell this tale. Big English departments are administratively convenient. They have lower overhead costs than creating numerous small “studies” departments or programs. It is much easier to develop and offer new courses under the umbrella of an established department than it is to secure the approvals necessary for new requirements and programs; and when departments are large this can happen without requiring revision of a shared curriculum–teaching can be distributed to allow the unit to pursue several agendas at once, although some will likely seem more central or legitimate than others. Simply put: I’m suggesting that we make organizational scale a factor in our analysis. Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

A note on the Lippmann-Dewey debate. I warn you that I may feel compelled to bring this up again despite the fact that you are tired of hearing me prattle on about it. The debate was an absolutely formative argument of the 1920s, and it also demonstrates some of our overarching claims about intellectual life between the wars: what would later be seen as very different disciplines (philosophy, sociology, mass comm, education leadership) intersect there, the argument crossed over from the popular press to academe and was broadly influential, and the problem of “mass culture” animates it.

So let’s talk about mass culture!