Friday, November 11, 2011

In the Humanities, We Too Want to Find Things Out

Tauriq Moosa at 3 Quarks Daily is unconvinced by my defense of pop-culture humanities, including conferences such as the Jersey Shore conference held recently at the University of Chicago. Moosa says I fail "to offer good reasons for us to take the conference even a little seriously." He then proceeds to assess the conference program against my assertions of value for the topics (based only on the titled of topics and papers--I was not there).

Here is Moosa on the identity studies topic:
I’ve never understood what identity studies are about and what it means. I say this and I live in South Africa. Having engaged with it for many years, I’ve found identity studies to be nothing but nonsense posturing as deep, complex, psychological questions. In the end, who the hell cares? I’m an ex-Muslim who studies bioethics, to change public policy on matters on euthanasia and organ donation, and I read too many comics – I’ve never considered what my identity is or means in the context of a society that is largely unemployed and uneducated. What I have considered is what those factors of unemployment and no education will do when I attempt to engage in political change on matters of medicine (since the majority of the very population I want to benefit might not at first understand my reasons for wanting medical practioners to kill their patients, legally).

But will engaging with what it means to, say, be a man in today’s world really be an important topic? I’m always hesitant about such topics since sometimes people want to take what should be a discussion as a platform to advocate how men (or women) should be; which I think is unfounded, since gender roles don’t make sense anymore with, for example, increasing acceptance of homosexual relationships and artificial insemination. Who cares “how” a man should be in today’s world? I don’t think it’s a relevant topic, but then that’s just me.
Moosa is completely correct about a danger in identity studies to produce "nonsense posturing as deep, complex, psychological questions." One is well served to have a BS-meter handy when reading any paper that purports to focus on identity issues.

Yet, questions of identity do have importance, as does engaging with such questions. Moosa asks why one should care about the topic, and why it matters to have students engage with questions of masculinity or femininity or race or income level or legal status on and so on.

Here's why: because we want to know how things work, including societies and cultures. Some people want to know how light behaves under certain conditions. Others want to know how an organism survived millions of years ago in a hostile environment. Some people want to know what happens when two different molecules interact with each other. Some people want to know how people make sense of the sounds and gestures produced by other people. And some people want to know how different ideas get expressed, used, shared, and altered in a culture.

I am one of the people in this last group. I think we can look at identity categories, for one thing, as a way of studying the historical character of cultures. I believe further that knowing more about such categories and their uses in cultures helps to advance the cause of civil/legal equality and to lessen bigotry.

Moosa asks "Who cares 'how' a man should be in today’s world?" The answer is that I do. I care how masculinity gets defined, and I think it has broad social implications and historical connections. There's a light beer commercial series that focuses on unmanly behavior. Usually, one guy in the commercial won't drink the right kind of light beer and it ties into some earlier behavior that was either too child-like or too feminine. These humorous constructions of masculinity have interesting tie backs to other beer commercials and to other literature where men better behave like men. And we all know of real-life groups and situations where it was a matter of harm or death to act unmanly.

So, yeah, it's relevant how people construct manliness or Italian-American-ness or most any other identity. It's important. Moosa repeatedly he uses the words "important" (10 times) and "pointless" (6 times) to dismiss both the subject of the conference--Jersey Shore--and the approach to the subject--too shallow and posturing.

But I see the humanities as able to play an important role in (1) developing the cultural knowledge mentioned above, and (2) teaching the critical thinking skills required for such knowledge. As I remark in another post:
My point is not about the relative quality of the products, Jersey Shore vs. The Brothers Karamazov; it's about their value (also not equal) in allowing students to learn, discuss, and hone critical thinking skills. In my ideal world, the best teaching would lead people to be offended that Jersey Shore was ever offered as an option for entertainment. And then the show would fold along with others of its ilk.
Moosa rightly points out the dangers of people getting on platforms to tell us how men or women should be. In my conception, the humanities is descriptive, not prescriptive. Moosa also asks why people like me want to know how people of the past saw their world, why people like me want to understand the fictional worlds created in our literature, and why people like me want to study reality shows and comic books. The answer is (again) because we, like you, want to know how the world works. For us, the pleasure of finding things out concerns things that are made and valued by people. 

And that's why even a conference on Jersey Shore has a point and has importance. Moosa is quite right that the Jersey Shore conference could have been on anything: from the Darwin biopic to Lost, and everywhere in between. The point is, however, that we have companies and people who make something like Jersey Shore, we have companies and people who make money from the show, and we have people who watch it and have their various reactions to it. This point is important because it requires us to make up hypotheses, as Moosa does, for why the show is a hit. He says:
Most people are comfortably bored with their lives and, lacking creative stimulus enjoy seeing "better" versions of themselves through the tanned, ripped abs of Italian-American people from New Jersey; the show is so unbelievably stupid, you watch it the same way you do a car-crash in slow motion, except the things breaking are people’s lives and what’s dissolving is time better spent elsewhere; and so on.
These are excellent hypotheses and worth investigating. In my mind, in my conception of the humanities, these are precisely the kinds of questions to explore. I suspect that the papers of the Jersey Shore conference actually make just these explorations, except perhaps in a tapioca of puffed out prose, but the hypotheses are the point. We do humanities to make hypotheses, to make arguments, and to weigh and consider their merits and flaws.

From what I gather, a show like Jersey Shore screams for an explanation. Who would produce such a thing? Why would it resonate? If we start, dispassionately, at this show, what can we learn about the workings of a culture in which Snooki is a star?

These are questions of interpretation and argumentation, and they are also questions of information and data. Many of the cultural studies questions raised in the conference do or could lead to data. After all, most historical scholarship requires data on the period in question, even if the period is very recent. Indeed,  data appears to be quite "hot" in the humanities right now.

Should the Jersey Shore conference be taken seriously? I say "yes" because it offers views of a cultural phenomenon, a phenomenon that can give us information on how our world actually works. I know folks in the sciences who get up in arms when the government or the public views their projects as frivolous, unimportant, a waste, or without benefit.

May I humbly suggest, then, that the scholars in Jersey Shore conference might have their own takes on why the conference was not a waste of funding and was a legitimate way to serve education? And may I humbly suggest that these scholars offer their takes publicly?

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