e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


happy talk

I've been thinking a lot about what makes people happy. In my basic writing class last month, we read Paul Clemens' book Made In Detroit and, by the end, most of the students had concluded that Clemens lacked happiness. How else to explain his search for meaning? Why else would he wrestle with the meaning of his fiance's brutal attack and his dad getting carjacked? Yes, they said, of course these events affected Clemens emotionally, but why in the world--aside from his pervasive lack of happiness--would he approach these issues intellectually?

Writers lack the ability to "move on," many in the class concluded; writers like Clemens fail to "simplify" (one student used this term and it really resonated for others) their lives. We had a great discussion about how reflection, analysis, critique, and knowledge always have the potential to upset us and keep us from feelings of gratification. Knowing why McDonald's tastes so good. Knowing why that CD costs 8.99 instead of 14.99.

And yet I'm aware that much of my contribution to that discussion assumed the secular-liberal-academic values so rarely questioned in the world of campuses, English Departments, letters, etc. 'Knowledge comes from disinterested, rational thought.' 'The human condition is complex and cries out for nuanced, sophisticated explanations.' 'A life of books is the best life of all.' 'As a culture, as Neil Postman famously opined, we're amusing ourselves to death.'

These are not necessarily values for which I wish to cheerlead. I don't know for certain that a life of books is the best possible life. I love to read novels, as time allows. I love Naomi Shihab Nye's poetry. Reading Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness in grad school changed the way I look at the world. But my connection to these books is rooted in pleasure, not in some kind of exalted "life of books," and I don't think I'm alone in that respect. How is my connection to books (including "idea books") different than my connection to punk rock or the tv show "Lost" (given that all of the above are rooted in pleasure)? How is a connection to the stuff Postman critiques different than a connection to "good fiction"? I know a lot of English professors who seem to be "amusing themselves to death" on the New York Review of Books.

I challenged much of what my basic writers had to say (simplify! don't overthink it!), but I hope I did so in a fashion that made clear that we have a wide variety of value systems that might undergird how we make sense of the world. The secular-liberal-academic way(s) of understanding the world--adopt a disinterested, analytical stance--has not cornered the market. (And of course I don't mean to turn secularism, liberalism, or academe into fixed monoliths--there are many different versions of all three ideologies.) Most of my students take either Christianity or Islam very seriously and their identities as Christians or Muslims are more significant in their lives than their identities as academics. And yes, these two identity markers DO butt up against one another with some frequency.

All of these thoughts came to a head for me today as I read several reviews of Susan Jacoby's new book "The Age of American Unreason," reviewed in both the Times and Salon.com. Jacoby's book is another in a long-ass, usually quite popular line of critiques of our mythically dumbed-down-and-declining-right-now-as-we-speak culture. From the Salon review:
The chief manifestations of this newly virulent irrationality are the rise of fundamentalist religion and the flourishing of junk science and other forms of what Jacoby calls "junk thought." The mentally enfeebled American public can now be easily manipulated by flimsy symbolism, whether it's George W. Bush's bumbling, accented speaking style (labeling him as a "regular guy" despite his highly privileged background) or the successful campaign by right-wing ideologues to smear liberals as snooty "elites." Unable to grasp even the basic principles of statistics or the scientific method, Americans gullibly buy into a cornucopia of bogus notions, from recovered memory syndrome to intelligent design to the anti-vaccination movement.
And while I'm sure Jacoby makes some compelling points, for me her credibility is damaged by the implication that "junk thought" is new. To be fair, I have not read her book; perhaps the reviews are misrepresenting her argument. Self-help books and demagogue politicians have long histories. Over a century ago, PT Barnum scammed boatloads of the "suckers" he said were born every minute. Why the claims of newness?

I'll save the critiques of Jacoby until I've read the book. But in truth, I probably won't, because I have little interest in analyses of these issues that fail to account for the multiple value systems--all of them socially constructed (itself, I'll admit, a notion informed by a pomo-light version of secular-liberalism!), situated, ideologically bound. It's all a little too Allan Bloom. A little too much like the "where have all the bookstores gone?" conversation before faculty meetings.

Both reviews of the book suggest that Jacoby blames religious fundamentalism and partisan political ideology for the alleged decline in smarts. And while I find much to fear in the rise of fundamentalism in particular, I'm not convinced that fundamentalism or partisanship are any guiltier than other value systems for shutting down independent thought. A fundamentalist is told what to think about, say, gay marriage. A loyal republican is told what to think about gun control. But a loyal academic faces the pressures of groupthink, too (try bringing up "America's Next Top Model" at a faculty meeting).

That's why Sharon Crowley's "Toward a Civil Disourse" is such an interesting book, because she deconstructs liberalism and fundamentalism with equal gusto. And, to return to my own students, one of the useful things about Made in Detroit is that Clemens walks us through the inadequacy of BOTH his family's laissez faire attitude toward race in the city AND the body of African-American literature he falls in love with in college. Neither provides a framework that can adequately explain his own lived experience. And so he wrestles. And so he considers various perspectives. And he writes. And perhaps ends up a little bit unhappy.

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