In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
One of the benefits of getting older is that sense of surprise when you discover that something you hadn’t thought much about in, say, twenty years has changed in interesting ways.
In a discussion this week with a colleague from the humanities, I had one of those moments. She mentioned that if you look at the elective classes that tend to fill, and the electives that don’t, you see a distinct pattern. The classes that involve making something or performing something -- whether theater, music, or creative writing -- do quite well. The classes that involve analyzing things others have created -- upper-level literature, art history -- don’t.
Students would rather create than analyze.
It struck me, because it wasn’t how I remembered things being. Not all that long ago, the ‘creation’ classes were usually sort of off to the side. The culture wars of the 1980’s and 1990’s -- who to include in the canon and how to read them -- were based on an assumption common to both sides, which was that humanistic education was mostly about reading and analysis. The important debates were over who and how to read, not whether to. Literary critics were academic celebrities. Now, it’s about creation.
Something similar is happening with “maker faires” and the like. The shift to creation doesn’t seem to be confined to literary studies, or even to the humanities. It seems broader.
It’s a mixed blessing, of course, but I’m inclined to be optimistic. If you’ve struggled to produce something, you’re likely to be a more nuanced and sympathetic critic of others who do the same. You know how limited the choices are, and what the constraints on production are.
I’m guessing that the cultural shift has something to do with the proliferation of platforms that the web has wrought. Until about 1997 or so, it was difficult to get work exposed to any kind of large audience. Gateways to the public were few, and tightly guarded. Creativity could be expressed instead through critique. Anyone who remembers “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or even “Pop-Up Video” will recognize the impulse.
Now, production is far easier and gatekeepers are barely hanging on. You can make video with your phone, and distribute it to the world with a click. With 3-D printing, you can make prototypes of complicated contraptions that would have been impossible just five or ten years ago. The challenge now isn’t winning over some critic or executive; it’s getting noticed above the din.
Today’s eighteen year olds were born in 1996. This is the world they have always known.
If I specialized in literary criticism, I’d be nervous. But the arts may be poised for a new, if very different, golden age.
One of the cable channels had a Harry Potter movie marathon this week, so The Wife and the kids watched several. Actual conversation between TW and The Girl, upon seeing a scene with Helena Bonham Carter:
TG: If I were a supervillain, I’d wear my hair just like that. My clothes, too.
TW: Are you going to be a supervillain?
TG: I haven’t decided yet.
TW: You’d be a great supervillain.
TG (deadpan): I know.
World, you’ve been warned…
Program Note: We’re going on vacation next week, so the blog will spend some time in the sun. It’ll be back on Monday, July 28. See you then!
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