5.From Mass Culture to Mediation: Next steps

Dear John,

Your last neatly tied up some points and introduced some new ones. Good work! It has left me wondering where we are in the big picture. The discussion of mass culture feels like the main thread to me, to the point that I almost wish we’d considered the Red Book points in reverse order.

We’re agreed that

  • the Red Book authors position commercial mass culture (other than literature) “as having a limited experimental role in the classroom” and “as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education”
  • this move goes hand-in-hand with elevating a particular version of English as isomorphic with Humanities,
  • this two-fold gesture omits/erases half a century of efforts to incorporate the study of media like film in Humanities, along with any awareness that the particular version of English at issue was itself a relatively recent invention.

If an undeclared aim of the book is to accomplish this, we might reassess its concern with balancing Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives, its privileging the Humanities as a unifying element within General Education, and its opening gambit of thinking systemically about General Education beginning with K-12.

Such a reassessment begins to clarify the Red Book’s role as a Truman-era policy blueprint. The mass media gesture with which the authors conclude, as much as the K-12 argument with which they begin, proclaims this a high-stakes, big-picture endeavor. It also underscores the funding pitch. System-wide, what could possibly compete with the funding stream available to advertisers? Only the Feds!  Similarly, putting media front-and-center reframes the Red Book’s vision of General Education as the fulcrum upon which leveling/unifying and meritocratic/sorting ed functions might balance. It points us away from the context of the Early Republic and toward that of 1945. Then, the big education news was the G.I. Bill (1944), which funded education as a back-to-work program and a benefit like business loans and subsidized mortgages. The big media news had to do with imagining a post-war market that included television, educational films, reconfigured international regulations, and major anti-trust cases (the 1945 Film Daily Year Book provides a contemporary overview.)

To take up the mass media problem, in other words, is to begin to make a materialist critique of the Red Book, in which we would think of schools and colleges as institutions among others concerned to unify and sort national populations, to produce an admixture of obedience and innovation. The Red Book’s authors are elites who, with some success, leveraged their institutional authority to define a fundable mission for English-led Humanities in General Education–a mission that succeeded better as national policy than it did at Harvard. In this mission, reading would be valued over, and sometimes opposed to, watching and listening. “Great works in literature” would be valued over a catch-all approach that encompassed “anything that has anything to do with anything in the Metropolitan Museum” (108). The Red Book authors say this is because great works provide commonality in an age when specialization, complexity, and increasing numbers of students from diverse backgrounds threaten “common heritage and common citizenship” (5). If we take this argument seriously and imagine 1945 instead of 1830 as its context, then the democracy-demands-English argument just looks lame. It is not unified culture per se that the professors are after (for that purpose, Hollywood might be a better interpreter of great works than Harvard), nor is it political participation (if that’s the goal, why not place civics, rather than English, at the core of General Education?). Rather, the professors want to administer what counts as common culture by setting its touchstones in Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. Nice work if you can get it!

Here’s where I’m going with this riff on a well-established theme. (Alert! Unsupported polemic follows. Can we just agree to call it a working hypothesis?) The Red Book is much less the reasoned voice of a mid-century consensus about the Humanities than Harpham, e.g., would have us believe. It is an early, and maybe the defining, strategic move in the culture wars. This move established the coordinates that would guide arguments about the humanities right up until the present. Schematically:

Unity Difference
Great Works Anything
Humanities values Commercial values
Interpretation Facts*
Reading Viewing/Listening
College/School Other Institutions

Twenty years on, dissident humanists inside English departments and outside them would organize themselves around one or more of the devalued terms in the right-hand column. Thirty years on, materialist critiques of this structure (Bledstein, Ohmann) gained some currency, without however, foregrounding the crucial link between educational institutions and media institutions. Forty years on, the right-hand column people could be represented by left-hand column people as posing a threat to the national future in their influence over general education. Fifty years on, it became clear that tactical advances by Studies programs and  big “T” Theory had moved the dividing line between the columns into the heart of English departments, without altering the structure of oppositions. It was obligatory for English professors to consider whether “the human” and “the humanities” were categories worth defending. Sixty years on, humanist self-crit had come to seem self-defeating. Some commentators looked nostalgically to the left-hand column as a recipe that would retain or renew public funding. But the real action was elsewhere, in the struggle to grapple with  a period of media change more sweeping than any since the first decades of the 20th Century, when arguments about commercial cinema profoundly shaped the Humanities and Social Sciences.

This struggle, which is in no small part a struggle to define what “Digital Humanities” will come to mean, promises (if we’re lucky) to decentralize the Imperial English department, to open educational institutions to real collaboration–both internally across disciplines and with certified and vernacular experts outside their borders, and to establish a new strategic alignment. Schematically, that alignment might push the established alternatives aside, like so:

Populations Unity/Difference
Examples (of Practices) Great Works/Anything
Contested values Humanities/Commercial values
Mediation (specificities, interactions) Reading/Viewing/Listening
Continuity/Change Interpretation/Facts
Good Management (a question & a project) Institutions

How about it? Should we try to demonstrate this hypothesis?

In other news, we’ve spun-off a series of to-dos for ourselves in recent posts. Maybe we should create a static page to keep track of these?


*This one is probably too much shorthand. I have in mind the set of arguments and assumptions that make a certain kinds of historical and social analysis part of the Humanities in the Red Book and another kinds part of the Social Sciences. Humanities: interpretative procedures that work form text to context. Social science: ordered series that aim to establish “what happened” or “what is.” Theres a lot more to say about this. The placement of history (as an epistemology) inside the Humanities and History (as a discipline) outside it (in the Red Book but not necessarily elsewhere) is something we really need to look into. To do list?



One thought on “5.From Mass Culture to Mediation: Next steps

  1. Pingback: I.A. Richards, Digital Humanist » Humanities after Hollywood

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