14-3 academe

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

14.3 (Summer 2014)


academe in decay

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From Bureaucratic Pipeline to Electronic Funnel: The Curricular Dismemberment of “the Arts”

Peter T. Singleton

Not long ago, I was witnessing the death throes of a college literature program as state bureaucrats set about freeing more of the core curriculum for “useful” studies.  My association with the school is that of an adjunct in semi-retirement, so my seat was safely removed from the arena’s blood and sand. Still, the prospect wasn’t pretty, though for me it had an “I told you so” quality with a dash of “you deserve every bit of it”. Understand that I would never try to defend the literary pedagogy of the past fifty years before any audience.  I would even be willing to sign off on the assertion that teaching undergraduates a chronological sequence of trumped-up skirmishes between racial and gender minorities and the white male “hegemony” is worse than wasted time.  It isn’t a literary survey, at any rate.

But that argument wasn’t being made by the state system’s number-crunchers. They came gunning for the Norton Anthologies of English, American, and World Literature for very different reasons. In fact, imperial decrees that come from the state capital often seem fully compatible with the ideology of whoever if drafting those anthologies’ latest editions. State directives typically carry demands for more “diversity”, more “alternative lifestyle awareness”, and all the other polysyllabic mean-nothing rigamarole.  Centralized bureaucracies (and postmodernist professors) do not particularly like rigor of content in anything, which quickly draws them out of their depth.  Bureaucrats like suffocating rhetorical hazes (as do postmodernist professors) where their ignorance can safely hide and where they can constantly test the loyalty—and expose the contumacy—of those who suffer under their arbitrary rule.  If I demand that you rate your classroom teaching for its audial, visual, oral, verbal, somatic, communal, technological, and psychodynamic modes of implementing the learning outcomes enunciated in Article 5, Section 3, then I can gauge your level of sycophancy by your response—for you and I both know that I’m requiring you to taxonomize a load of barnyard feces.  I can actually teach you to become more of a sycophant through many exercises of this kind.  You resist in Year One, but by Year Five you’re not uttering a peep (or else you’ve disappeared).

So these faceless invaders from the State House would have had no grudge with the meaningless folderol in which dull cynicism is packaged in most literature classes.  What was most distressing about the curricular overhaul was truly the extent to which it had carried forward the soulless vulgarity so characteristic now of English instruction.  In their bureaucratic kitchens, the “select committees” had diced up the goals and objectives of the liberal arts institution in a manner that they surely found quite rational.  The educated student needs to be able to speak.  Therefore, let those “verbal communication” hours currently shared with the sophomore literary survey courses be bestowed exclusively on Speech courses.  The educated student should also know something about art—not a whole hell of a lot, but… you know.  Something.  More than the uneducated person.  Therefore, let her (of course, you all know that “she/her” is the third-person singular pronoun in this world) take a course in Art History or Music History, or a freshman course in Intercultural Studies or Sociology 1130 (“Human Expression”) or even English 1055 (“Film History”).  One class: three hours.  That should fill the bill… without wasting time.

I didn’t get the impression than even my most shell-shocked colleagues really understood the enormity of this mandated dumbing-down.  They had been its willing instruments throughout their careers, so one would have to suspect them of rank hypocrisy to suppose that they saw here more than the loss of numbers in their large literary survey sections.  None of them in my presence questioned the breaking down of the human aesthetic experience into a vaguely voluntary kind of multi-sensory, quantifiable functionality in circumstances avoided by uneducated people.  There was no lamenting the idiotic oral/aural, creative/collaborative polarities designed, apparently, for an experiment with albino lab rats.  Since none of these people (unless, just possibly, one or two senior full professors) has ever heard Vivaldi except over the shopping mall’s speakers at Christmastime or could actually describe a single Rembrandt, why should they receive this fracturing of artistic experiences into a duet of firing neurons as an epochal rout?

In the interests of full disclosure, a dramatic reduction in lower-division courses may possibly cost me my job, since I sit quite low on the departmental totem pole.  But I don’t really need a job that pays so poorly—and the meagerness of my salary, on the flip side, may make me very tough to lay off.  Believe it or not, I cast a pale eye on employment, unemployment.  My colleagues view the diminution of English majors recruited from my and other core courses with much more alarm, since they have much more to lose—of a selfish, worldly, material nature.  (And college professors, as this readership understands, are so far from being contemptuous of such bourgeois concerns as to be obsessed by them.)  So perhaps because I have relative distance from the situation, I can see the massive annihilation of our forces on the battlefield in a way that my “superiors”, clouded by the front line’s smoke, cannot.  Or perhaps I was the only one who ever saw the engagement as a battle and am hence the only one who sees its outcome as, not compromise, but debacle.

Forgive me if I now offer a facile reduction of the issue, for I know that I have been less than lucid so far.  Imagine a checklist, or an order blank.

Aesthetic training for undergraduates: check “desirable” or “undesirable”.  You checked “a”.  Choose from the following options among current courses.  1) Aural experience: Music 1040 or 1045; 2) Visual experience: Art 1100 or 1105; 3) Oral experience: Speech 1010 or 1015.

What happened to literature in the bureaucratic “breakdown” which, I’m wholly convinced, would have taken almost this precise form after a clearing away of the gobbledygook?  Well, reading is visual, but the “visual arts” have a prior and superior title to the word.  One might listen to a read text, as does the growing volume of “special needs” students… but we needn’t even stray down that road when the edifice of Music so plainly occupies its endpoint.  That leaves the spoken—which makes a lot of sense, because literature began with oral tales around the campfire, and even today most writers speak their words in their minds.  But the rubric of the spoken should obviously belong to Speech.  We could squeeze literary surveys under the same rubric… but lets get real: how many students will choose a reading-intensive class over a class where you just talk?

When professionals whose rumps comfortably occupy the seats of power already think in these terms, I call the decisive battle for the soul of academe lost.  Not to understand that the aesthetic experience doesn’t break down according to the specialties chosen by medical practitioners (viz., ear, nose, throat, eyes, anus) is to be an irredeemable barbarian.  There’s real stupidity in this model: gaping, clueless stupor.  Beauty enlists all the senses at once, though it naturally animates created forms that favor some senses over others, depending upon the artist’s special gifts.

Travel back in time—as far back as we can go. With your indulgence, I offer a draft of the email that I composed pleading with the curriculum committee on behalf of my tongue-tied colleagues:

In the West, the arts have been inspired by literature at least since records were kept.  In fact, prehistoric cave-corridors and tholos tombs may have been more closely connected to infernal journeys like the Odyssey’s Book 11 than later temples. Paleolithic cave art implies a hunt, at the very least. Its relative abundance in certain parts of caves (more often far within than close to the entrance) also implies a ritual; and a ritual is a sacred story celebrated communally.

The art we know better has slowly gravitated toward extraordinary individuals who either created literature or, more often, came straight from the pages of poems, plays, or novels.  Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac is among his most famous.  Byron and his characters appear in dozens of nineteenth-century canvases.  Turner borrowed from Virgil and Ovid.  Even the great landscape painters, who might not represent so much as a human habitation in their vistas, were tapping a taste for the wild and rustic stirred earlier by the Romantic poets.  Of course, the influence of sacred texts upon medieval and Renaissance art is incalculable.

The form of the madrigal, likewise, originated in the text-based belief that angels do not breath and thus may sing seamlessly.  The subject of opera was invariably literary: where would Wagner have been without Teutonic myth?  We may assume today that music need have no necessary connection to literature thanks to our now-established habit of scoring films with classics rather arbitrarily.  The William Tell Overture orbits The Lone Ranger’s influence, not Schiller’s.  The “sunrise” sequence in Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite is the child of commercials about yard work or allergy pills, not of Ibsen’s play.  Millions associate the melodies of The Nutcracker with Christmas shopping yet haven’t any notion of what Tchaikovsky’s nutcracker looked like.

Such evidence might mistakenly be read as demonstrating the irrelevance of literature to creativity—as suggesting, at most, that the strong historical bond between creative writing and the other arts belongs to the quaint parade of customs now turned meaningless.  To others who have followed the increasing descent of modern Western art into abstraction, however, the rupture of the ties between the arts seems ominous.  What is an artist to paint or a musician to lyricize if not the human world?  And how is an audience to enter this created world (for the problem really involves the audience more than the artist) if a culture’s emerging generations share no common experience of stories told?  We concede, as educators, that members of a multicultural society should know of the Koran’s role in producing highly intricate and abstract designs throughout the Muslim world.  Why, then, would we ignore the importance of individualism in Western portrait-painting (e.g., Vermeer) or of the urban high-tech environment in twentieth-century music (e.g., Gerschwin)?  While one can utter words like “individualism” and “urban”, nothing breathes spirit into them like a story; and the art of story-telling is the province of literature, which our incoherent contemporary curricula reduce a little more nearly every year to movie-versions of a few classics shown to ninth-graders.

The strains of multiculturalism more than ever call for responsible educators to provide tomorrow’s citizens with some humane, coherent vision amid so much blossoming diversity: an inspiration adumbrated collectively and reflectively, not a mish-mash of consumerist habits.  Music, painting, and sculpture tap into the imagination and the soul—but they must do so without words, even though their vision began in words.  How does the novice learn those magic words? How do we clue this young person into the complete process, without literature? To unleash a raw response in this manner without seeking to tame and refine it with verbal expression is rather like stirring a subject’s mind with an ink-blot test and then neglecting to discuss the reaction.  Culturally, we have desperate need of the discussion.

byron  ovid

J.M.W. Turner painted scenes from literary works of poets as disparate as Byron (Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage) and Ovid (Glaucus and Scylla from the Metamorphoses).

I apologize for the sophomoric quality that this overview is bound to have before the eyes of readers more sophisticated than the email’s intended audience.  The intended audience, for that matter, was well below the mark where I aimed, as I now realize. And the issues are really much more complex than I stated them, as I am just beginning to see. It isn’t just that pictures and music evolve from worded thought: that’s why my adversaries suggested more Speech classes, to begin with. Horrors… they might just respond that they agree with me! In a way, the problem is that we have already squeezed the various arts much too tightly into each other’s space. The reason we (or certain barbarians among us) can so easily break the artistic experience into something distinct for each of the senses is that all of the senses are now sending the same dull message in the same monochrome, monotonous, repetitive manner. That’s the problem: the multi-sensual medium is the message. We are dead inside.

Something has driven us into a kind of cultural funnel which has so narrowed our range of all aesthetic experiences that we can speak clinically—in serious and even respectable company—of an aural or a visual or an oral experience.  I think of those three plug-ins with color-coding (red, yellow, and white, wasn’t it?) that we used to worry over when running a cable from the VCR to the TV.  They were more or less divided to address three of the five senses.  Smell and taste have so far been shortchanged by technology; but would anyone be surprised to know that serious scholarly articles are now being written about the “aesthetics of taste” (as in taste buds—as in turmeric, chives, and cumin)?

There seems to be no more beautiful object, no sense of the beautiful destination that the creator reaches however he (or she) can.  Painting, for example, is a thing of the past.  All art is now technical, in an electronic sense.  Portraiture became photography a long time ago (a century ago, one could argue).  Now photographs themselves are routinely submitted to “photoshopping”, a.k.a. computer-enhancement.  The process can produce breathtaking results: don’t misunderstand.  I am constantly impressed by the cover art of what appear to be very “cheap” (quickly written, mass-produced, formular) novels advertised every time my Kindle powers up.  In the “old days”, you could tell a dime novel by its nickel cover art; but now, the effects achieved are much more powerful, I have a feeling, than anything behind the cover.  Here is one such opus:


The face isn’t simply beautiful; in fact, I might not call it beautiful at all.  But it is most certainly evocative.  The displaced hair and the strange snowflake of twinkle over the lower lip complete the mysterious siren-song begun by those incredibly deep-set eyes (a little too deep, perhaps, to be entirely credible: does such a woman really exist?).  The masters of oil and canvas naturally knew how to exaggerate critical elements in a face, as well.  Here is the difference.  Their technique consisted of tricking the viewer’s eye and involving the viewer’s mind in the “enhancement”.  Vermeer’s Girl With a Scarf, as I once heard an octogenarian art critic explain, might almost be nothing at all in her interrupted turn, speaking materially.  Her face is a triangle of soft light.  Her nose is faintly haunted by shadow like a crater on the Moon seen with the naked eye.  One of those shadows discreetly blots the closer angle of her parted lips, leaving little but a contrast with the lower lip’s soft pink reflection.

Girl with a Pearl Earring - Jan Vermeer
The Midnight Exposure “Kindle-girl” achieves mystery by having her essential lines sharpened artificially: she is clearer and keener than life.  Vermeer’s girl is a mystery of muted light and shadow fading in and out of one another in a mesmeric dance.  Kindle-girl is by no means all laser-clarity; but uncertainty (and this is critical) is overlaid by clear wisps of hair and a clearly frosty effect, as of ice particles.  The contrast is something like that between more and less pixelation.  Technology allows us to overwhelm our visual sense with more detail than we can easily process: the classical style invited us to imagine our personal dream in the artist’s textured shades and swirls.

And this leads directly to a “funneling” of the narrative art.  As the girl on Midnight’s cover appears to peer through a frosty breeze at night, she is already calling us into a story.  The specifics that supply her veil of mystery also imply a narrative.  Light falling gently into one of Vermeer’s domestic scenes produces no specific obstacles, no material clutter between us and the face.  With the clutter of high-tech “thingness” comes a story about how the things happen to be flying through the air.  Why is this person gazing over this wall in a Highland mist?  Why is that person running through a field of wildflowers toward a quaint old farmhouse?  The new visual art, populated heavily by multiplied and magnified detail that contributes mood, has largely dispensed with style and substituted situation.  Something is always happening, and the happening is always “out there” where it makes “action clutter”.

In the heyday of the novel and the short story, happenings could be intensely introverted.  Even such rough-and-ready subjects as a sea voyage could become profoundly psychological in Joseph Conrad.  This is why Conrad’s works have never been transformed into great films.  For the movie-maker, visual, objective happenings are necessary.  Emotions do not show up in any chemical bath found in a developing lab.  Fights show up, and hugs and kisses, and leaps and falls.  As the movie and the TV serial have come to dominate our cultural taste for narrative, particular narratives have grown more extroverted, in the fashion that scholars of oral traditions write about.  The necessity of producing stories in pictures has eliminated stories that cannot yield graphic pictures.  The other end of this process is where we have just been: visual art now constantly alludes to the cliché narratives that it has been called upon to translate.

“Cliché” is the word to emphasize here. The dependency of story on picture has inevitably led to picture-stories (and I wasn’t thinking of graphic-novels… but, yes, think of graphic-novels), and stories-in-pictures can only take so many forms.  One might object to that final assertion.  Why may not a virtually infinite abundance of pictures generate infinite stories?  The reason is in the story, in the need to tell one.  A girl standing in a sea of sun-bathed wildflowers has no drama. She must run—from a train wreck or to Grandma’s house or with madness in her eyes. Pictures can no longer be “stand-alone”.

It is no longer a revelation to remark that writers write with a view to having their works picked up by the film industry. That’s where the real money is. More to the point, film is the medium in which the new reader thinks as she reads (since the “he’s” don’t read at all). Any Kindle bestseller into which I unhappily blunder has that same scripted format: setting described, on-scene characters identified, A speaks in quotes, B quoted, A quoted, B quoted, A swings at B, they fight, B staggers away, B vows vengeance, scene fades on A dialing Marsha on his cell. No thoughts or emotions suggested or analyzed between the lines delivered, unless these lead to actions (a drawn knife, an obscene gesture). These things are written like bloody scripts. Sometimes—more and more often—a movie will pass into book form after doing well at the box office. The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

And to make matters worse, the newly passive consumers of pictures need a higher density of pictures all the time to keep them occupied, for the attached stories are so few that they become quickly recognized after a mere flash of visual cues. (If I had two more shots of Kindle-girl above, I’ll bet that I could reasonably approximate the plot of her story: right now I would guess ghost-hunter or runaway.) The latest pictures must not only construct a sequence, then: they must do so ever faster as each generation of viewers grows more impatient with old pictures moving at slower rates.  (Footnote: today’s students absolutely detest having to sit through any old black-and-white film where a single shot shows a character in silence for ten seconds, as after receiving news of a parent’s death.) The observer’s position being such that he (or she) no longer completes images but passively consumes them, the images themselves must grow more shockingly clear and more densely packed to satisfy this hyper-developed capacity for swallowing, for gulping whole.

Action-sequences are therefore indispensable.  And stories with relentless action… how many of these, realistically, can anybody think up? Terrorist attack, kidnapping, dangerous stalker, poltergeist, conspiracy involving neo-Nazis… which takes us back to terrorist attack. “That will bring us back to do,” as Mary sings in The Sound of Music.

Ah, yes: music. Music aids in this pie-eating contest of narrative-cliché gluttony.  It cues the audience instantly into the sequence’s dominant emotion.  At the same time, unfortunately, music in the classical sense is also dismantled.  As with visual art, the suggestiveness of style seems to have yielded to “sensual clutter”.  In fact, most music today is as intricately connected to electronic-image production as is most visual art.  Tempo, orchestration, volume… these appear to be the primary concerns of the professional charged with scoring a movie or TV drama.  The result may yield no melody whatever.  Straining strings are a cue of imminent explosive action (the phone isn’t ringing: the kidnapper was supposed to call). Percussive sounds sharply punctuate a pregnant silence that might otherwise go slack (the detective has followed the serial killer into the warehouse—but where to go now, with so many crates?).  Ennio Morricone, who cut his teeth working on Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns, was pioneering such effects when I was growing up.  I loved a lot of his stuff.  The theme to The Mission is beautifully harmonic and sounds just as a transcending vision of peace ought to.  And yet, it strikes me as fragmentary when I hear it on CD rather than with the film’s images.  The days when a composer might write a full-bodied, stand-alone work for a movie seem to have passed.  The score for Otto Preminger’s Laura became a jazz classic: I can still hear Al Hirt sweetly playing it in my mind.  But what we are more apt to get nowadays is the back-and-forth “beep… beep” of the FOX series 24’s ticking time-bomb.

I can hear the objection coming that films and TV serials have probably never used more independent compositions in their history; that, in fact, the latest trend is for a movie of doubtful prospects to parasitize upon the popularity of a recording artist, or for an obscure singer to do the same thing on the coattails of a big Hollywood production.  (A student told me all this, so I know it must be true.) Sure enough, in any sort of “time lapse” situation—hours of driving or knocking on doors or running lab tests—that you see on House or Breaking Bad or CSI: Name Your City, about a minute of some number from yesterday’s Top Fifty Countdown will serenade your meditation.  I don’t usually care for the nature of the gasping or the warbling, but I’ve come to recognize something significant about the association.  These musical pieces are actually do reinforce the drama’s mood, with both lyrics and tonal/rhythmic qualities, even though they were not written for it specifically but for a broader swathe of the culture.  They are the exception that proves the rule.  They may be dark or nostalgic or “bad ass”, but in their own way they are aimed just where the show is headed.  Both partake of the same narrow set of clichés—of signifiers, as literary critics like to say.

Feeling like your life sucks—like everything’s in the crapper?  Play something Dark Emo.  Or watch Jesse light up and shoot up as the cartel wastes its rivals around him.

My opposition could counter that every stage of every culture has always had a few dominant metaphors running through its major art forms, and this would be quite true.  Music did not used to be written and performed, though, so that it could slide right into the flow of an entirely different genre of art.  When PBS dramatized Henry James’s Golden Bowl many years ago, a harp concerto by Ravel played over the opening and closing credits, and I thought the choice exquisitely tasteful.  But I can’t imagine having the piece played in the background of actual performing, let alone over and over again as I sat reading the novella.  You listened to such music, in its day, and you made your own images.  These might well be suggested to you by something you had just read.  My infamous email tried to stress that Mendelssohn was thinking of MacPherson when writing Fingal’s Cave and Wagner of Wolfram when writing Parsifal.  Yet the listener would give to the musical composition its own time and space even if it were explicitly named for a literary work, and he (or she) would hear it with a concentration that precluded reading.

Now the two have fused.  TV shows dramatize drug abuse and suicide while singers electronically brood over the same issues, neither group of professionals aware of what the other is doing, yet both doing something so similar that you could watch one while listening to the other.  The “song” lasts about as long as a scene shot from several angles.  (Of course, MTV-style music-videos are… well over a decade old now, aren’t they?) The drama aims at the song’s overall mood, and dialogue may even overlap with some of the song’s lyrics.  Instrumentation, which was always the exclusive musical medium in the past (except for opera) in high culture, is now a few repeated chords that create an almost chant-like quality—taken to the extreme in Hip-Hop.

In some cultures (e.g., Latin America), newscasts even offer the day’s events with a backdrop of nervous quasi-musical “busy notes”.  Sportscasts have been blending “heavy metal” into their highlights for years now here on our own soil.  I wonder sometimes if the ubiquitous “ear bud” that accompanies students from class to class as they check Facebook is not the same kind of “pacesetter”.  Life, for them, must have racket in tempo if they are to take it seriously.  Real images have long come much too slowly for them, which is why they need to “multi-task” with their “devices”.  The same screen allows them to stir in texting shorthand (including emoticons) with their “selfies” and other uploaded pics.  All we need now is a “smart” device that plays the repetitive racket-tempo as the texting and selfing + uploading are going on. My bad: I think we already have that. I just can’t keep up!

Yes, the argument I should have made to the Committee of Select Vulgarians and Idiots, as I see now, was almost the reverse of what I put together.  We need words to think creatively, even if the product of our thoughts will eventually be a symphony or a painting.  But the reason that our children are Philistines isn’t that they can’t talk, and their deficit in that regard will be filled neither by more Speech classes nor more Literature classes.  The problem is that they can’t (as in “are not allowed to”) have deep thoughts, thoughts that are worth talking about.  The problem is that that every thought they have must be amenable to transmission through the red plug-in, the yellow one, and the white one—all at once.  The problem is that we want them to think like machines.

Only a machine can translate data instantly into aural, oral, and visual feedback.  A man… a woman… they used to conceive of melodies without words when they were really good with words, and to do things on a canvas that brilliantly defied perceptible boundaries when their logic was very good at definition. Are those days now gone forever?


Peter Singleton is a regular contributor to these pages.  As he mentions in the essay above, he is enjoying semi-retirement from a long career of teaching and writing.  He and his family reside in North Texas.