The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
10.3 (Summer 2010)
THE POLIS VS. PROGRESS
courtesy of artrenewal.org
An Open Letter to Close-Minded Campuses: Please Define “Progress”
About half a year ago, I received from Dr. Notzon the copy of a letter (reproduced below except for my excisions of a few proper nouns: the inquisitive will quickly ferret out the institution at issue) which impressed me more with each reading. I believe, indeed, that Dr. Singleton’s piece immediately following this one shares some of the same concerns. Because the confrontation of genuine culture with blind technological “progress” is much discussed in our pages, I obtained Dr. Notzon’s consent to reproduce the letter to his alma mater. Those of us who are associated with colleges or universities will recognize that the reservations he expresses should be taken seriously by every campus in the country (just as they will almost certainly be ignored everywhere–at least in our lifetime).
Department of English
University of ***
December 4, 2009
Having been in the United States now for a period of almost two years, after time spent abroad amounting to nearly twenty (largely in West Africa and Indonesia), I have finally become accustomed, or rather, re-accustomed, to the inordinate bulk of paper mail members of our beleaguered society receive on a daily basis. And I am also getting used to writing again. Instead of tossing out the alumni newsletter, I decided to compose the following. Perhaps I have been abroad too long, although in balance, I think I have made a better American abroad than I would have made at home. Regard what follows as the notes of one who in some ways considers himself “post-American” (to reuse an overused prefix) and who takes to heart what de Toqueville remarked about the “promotionalism” making up American culture, the products of which he saw being hawked with a glitter often distorting their real and relative merit (e.g. “boundless wonders” of literature, or “boundless” anything else).
When I arrived at the University of Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, West Africa, in 1988 on a Fulbright teaching fellowship, I found waiting for me in my mailbox a copy of PMLA (to which I had subscribed), its articles replete with themes of all the current “-isms”. These I attempted to read, battling a cloud of mosquitoes. I am glad the mosquitoes won. “Pathologies of epistemology,” as the anthropologist, Gregory Bateson has observed, are more hazardous in the long run to the human species than pathologies of the flesh. I eventually accepted that, if it were my misfortune to fall seriously ill or expire in Africa, the laboratory of Nature had pricked conscience to the degree that I remembered myself and the mortality I shared with those in my immediate community. I thought it much preferable to suffer this fusion consciously than to absorb a false sense of empowerment. Whatever the shrinking rewards of academic careerism, sitting in front of a text or screen, inebriated with the notion that as syllables burst so do worlds, is not a fit end for life. This mentality is an epidemic, a type of HIV of the mind, with its epicenter in North America. I took that copy of the PMLA, and walked the narrow streets of my neighborhood, tearing out clumps of pages and distributing them to the street vendors, who found them an excellent medium for wrapping up their wares of fried plantain, sliced mangoes, and ground millet pancakes. I wish had had written the MLA to thank them for their contribution to my small success in cross-cultural diplomacy and “sustainable” development.
I do regret that I can’t use as efficiently the mail I now receive in the promotion of print culture as an appropriate technology. Like everyone else, including your department, I have to face “financial constraints” and “cain’t” travel now–although I keep an eye on what I think is the real “cutting edge”: the United States is becoming the fastest growing Third World Country in the developed world, and those who feel the keenness of this will be best prepared for the numerous shocks, equal to or worse than the one we currently suffer, that I anticipate in the coming months and years. If the power goes out, it really won’t matter how many signifiers of how many texts, can be made to dance on the most micronic and evanescent head of a pixel, will it? I do recall, in Nepal, two young Westerners frantically running around ,unable to find an outlet to recharge their I-Pods. How could they get through the night under the shadow of Annapurna or pee in the snow without their MP3 files?) I do suspect that the anxieties of these kids would not differ much from the conditioned responses of the young folks some faculty have to “keep up with” and must flatter as educationist babbitry exhorts them to do.
But as regards the alumni newsletter: grammar and discussions of grammar, “good,” I suppose; but in the forefront as its major display–too many touches of glamour… what perhaps one could call “transformational glamour,” carrying echoes of the rhetorical ploys one associates with commercial television. (“Tired of waxing your car/flattening those abs/teaching English… in the same old way?”) .
Of the several and annoying “pop ups,” I want to emphasize this one: the specious, viral “meme” of going from a “manufacturing economy to an information economy” was perhaps inevitable. but is much too casually employed. This is specially so for an audience here in Michigan, which, I guess, is a state really “state of the art,” residents drowning so deep in the flood of information that they hardly have an economy at all. I think it would have been prudent to have made some recognition of the fact that the current crisis is no small way indebted (!) to digital technology which enabled financial wizards to enhance the “textualiity” of financial products, and spread them instantly to engorge the “textscapes” of other investors who responded in like manner, with hefty rounds of information passing in digital synergy and symmetry. It would have been too unusual or perhaps too daring for “pr” to devote block-space for a nominal recognition of that fact, since the power of digital technology really isn’t questioned from Washington to Wall Street–or to the institution of higher education flanking Washtenaw Avenue. The illusions of power, of course, only go as far as wealth, or the efforts of really “rethinking”, allow.
I do hold the time I spent at the university in high regard, and I do not want to lose that feeling. I temper myself with the realization that folks are pretty much still better than the egos they use–or must use–to advertise themselves, collectively or individually. I am sure that is still true of the Department of English, and equally true of myself. I felt I had to write this for some release from the most pervasive technology of our society in which we all share, and that is the Dwindle: dwindling resources, dwindling quality of life, dwindling attention spans, dwindling aesthetics, not to mention (in some cases) dwindling calibre and capacity to perceive at all. I just had to pull the plug on that device, and compose myself.
Mark Notzon (Graduating Class 1970, BA with distinction from the University)