Monday, October 13, 2008

Times are tough. Let the humanities help you.

A few weeks ago one of my friends was interviewed in a coffee shop about the crumbling economy. She was in that coffee shop working on her dissertation because she doesn’t have an office (neither does any grad student in my department). The reporter asked her how the stock crashes were affecting her. She responded that they didn’t affect her at all -- that she lived well below the poverty line, and did the reporter know what kind of money you have to have to get into the stock market?

Nonetheless, those who had anything to lose have lost it or are in the process of losing it. People want to point fingers.

The obvious people to blame are the people who somehow made money off of crazy meta-economic juggling and somehow made the rest of the economy depend on the aforementioned juggling.

But that’s boring. With our long-held Freudian taste for analysis, we’re moved to dig deeper, and by “dig deeper,” I mean “dig shallowly and pull up the first ready-made pat narrative you find.”

That narrative, of course, is the two cultures, for lo, it will not die.

Thus in yesterday’s New York Times, I find Maureen Dowd crowing that too much technocracy has gotten us into trouble and we must all go back to reading Latin so that we can learn from the Stoics that greed is bad. Capital is scarce: cultural capital is back!!

Then Op-Ed contributor Richard Dooling writes that “math and physics geeks” are raining destruction upon us, in the form of nuclear warfare and financial ruin.

And then there is Harold Bloom, who advocatesreading Emerson.

Let’s look for a moment at how Bloom quotes Emerson:
Pride, and Thrift, and Expediency, who jeered and chirped and were so well pleased with themselves, and made merry with the dream, as they termed it, of Philosophy and Love, — behold they are all flat, and here is the Soul erect and unconquered still.

“Pride,” “Thrift,” “Expediency”? That’s nineteenth-century talk for business school – which Dooling improbably aligns with physicists. In short, it’s all number-people collapsed together. “Philosophy and Love,” on the other hand -- the humanities.

So after hearing that the humanities are in crisis for basically the entire time I’ve been in the humanities, I’m starting to hear that this is our hour of glory.

The logic seems to go:

There are two cultures, numbers culture and humanities culture. Finance isn't part of the humanities, so it must be part of the numbers culture, which also includes, I don't know, botanists and the Maytag repair person. The soulless numbers culture, like the Republican party, squandered its period of dominance, and now the other party will rise to power. That would be the humanities. Here is the Soul erect and unconquered still!

That's where I'm balking. It takes some really confused categories (Dooling, I’m looking at you) to make nuclear physics, robot takeovers, and the world financial system into the same phenomenon. Physicists actually have nothing to do with the economic crisis. Correlation is not causation, and numbers per se do not create hubris.

It also takes some pretty confused categories to think of Latin, “philosophy and love,” or Emerson as the inverse of irresponsible economics. The economy is a mess, but Emerson is not going to come back into fashion. Latin is not going to come back either. The NYT editors will not suffer Dowd columns in Latin for long. People are not going to come flocking to the more decrepit buildings on campus beating their breasts and calling out, “Oh, literature professors! We were wrong! Sell us your academic monographs!”

The current economic situation is not about the two cultures. The two cultures are not real. The two cultures, as being invoked here, are an intellectually lazy binary that lets us point fingers without actually having to think about economics.

But I am pretty sure the current situation is actually about economics.

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