more on social structures and imaginative work

A couple of follow-ups on yesterday’s oddball rantish thing on the social and economic structures that enable or disable genuine imagination:

First, a really thoughtful response from my friend Bryan McGraw, who can provide a political philosopher’s take on these issues. Please read it all, but here’s an excerpt:

No doubt lots of folks on the political and cultural Left will read this (or see pithily tweeted link) and cheer. See, they’ll say, the universities are being “corporatized” and here’s another casualty! Ah, but I think Alan’s point is meant to cut more deeply than that, because what our libertarian economists and socialist sociologists share is a deep, deep commitment to a modern (and post-modern) conception of human moral psychology that reduces human beings to calculating preference machines (whether those preferences emerge out of appetites, culture, whatever makes for many of our differences, but that they rule us is widely held). And since we can see “through” human beings that way, we can organize them (or allow them to organize themselves) in some unitary and unified way. That’s why we can see what looks superficially like a paradox – a society that is both more libertine (sexual ethics limited only by consent) and puritanical (don’t smoke!) – is, in fact, not and why there is a tremendous amount of pressure to remake every institution and range of human activity in the image of, well, something or someone.

In a well-known passage, C. S. Lewis writes, “Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united — united with each other and against earlier and later ages — by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century — the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ — lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth.” I think (I hope) that later ages will see almost all of today’s political thought as wrapped up in the unquestioned and even unconfronted assumption that people are simply “calculating preference machines.”

More directly to the point of my article, while Eisenhower may have wanted us to distrust the “military-industrial complex” because of its power to involve private industry in policy-making, and while that is a very important warning indeed, when government, mega-industry, and the university system all become entangled beyond the possibility of disentanglement, the flow of influence runs in all directions, but especially from the richer to the less-rich — from the patrons to the patronized. And that puts universities in the position of being shaped far more than they shape; and that, in turn, puts the artists and writers who work for the university in an even more dependent position. This worries me.

I think I’ll have more to say about Bryan’s smart response, but for now just one note: I do think the anti-capitalist left is likely to find something to cheer in my post; they and I have a good deal in common. My politics are probably too incoherent to describe, but one might say that they are sorta kinda paleo-conservative green-communitarian, emphasizing the need to renew and strengthen the institutions (especially family and local community, and schools insofar as they grow out of family and local community) that mediate between the individual and the nation-state, for the better care of people and the created order. And since the nation-state that is growing and growing and growing in power is an international-capitalist one, I end up agreeing with the left that that nation-state’s dominance is probably our largest single political problem. When I think about politics, I have infinitely more sympathy for a left-anarchist like David Graeber than I do for any National Greatness conservatism. (Bryan, set me straight if I’m leaving the true path here.)

Second: One of the reasons I want to make an argument for regenerating genuine imagination, genuine creativity, is that “imagination” and “creativity” and today almost totally co-opted by scenes like this — the happy-clappy “super excited” artificially-generated enthusiasm of the TED world that Benjamin Bratton has called, in one of the most apt phrases of the twenty-first century, “middlebrow megachurch infotainment”. If that’s what imagination and creativity are all about, may God save us all from them.

collaboration

Speaking of being Against Social, let me comment on this post from the publisher of Seven Stories Press:

One reason that we’re beginning our push to blur the lines between print and electronic publishing with Hwang Sok-yong, however, has to do with Mr. Hwang’s reputation as a pioneer in popularizing online fiction in Korea. Mr. Hwang wrote his 2008 novel Hesperus as a serial on his personal blog at popular Korean portal site naver.com. The novel — a Catcher in the Rye-tinged coming of age story about a young man who slowly breaks free from the stultifying education system of Korea in the 1960s — was followed religiously by Internet-savvy young people throughout the country, many of whom left comments on the story as it was unfolding — to which Mr. Hwang responded each day before continuing the novel. It was a rare and appropriate opportunity for a writer and publisher to use the Internet as something more than a novel method of distribution or publicity. The book is about the experience of youth breaking free from conventional thinking, whatever the generation. The Internet allowed the generations to speak to one another, informing and broadening the content of the book.

Reading this, I’m reminded of the academic bureaucrats who want college students to be able to evaluate their professors on a daily basis, and who expect those professors to constantly restructure their classes in light of the constant feedback. (Yes, there are such people — I have met them.) I can imagine some few circumstances in which ongoing interaction between author and reader during the writing of the book could be a good thing . . . but I wonder how many of the works we most admire could have been produced within such a regime.

at least they’re writing . . .

Some time back I posted about the idea that even if young people are reading stuff their elders and betters think are trash, “at least they’re reading.” The question was simply whether reading anything is better than reading nothing. Well, we can ask the same question about writing:

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into “bleak, bald, sad shorthand” (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?Andrea Lunsford isn’t so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.”I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

(For links to Lunsford’s work, follow the link above.) Lunsford has discovered that textspeak is not making its way into student papers, and further argues that student writers today are highly “rhetorical” in the sense that they’re always aware of the audience they’re writing for. But does all this textuality make for better student papers? Do students who text frequently and spend hours a day conversing with friends on Facebook do a better job of producing sound, clear discursive prose than students who aren’t so textually active? I can’t tell from the article. Well, at least they’re writing.

creative writing

Louis Menand's long essay in the New Yorker on Mark McGurl's new book The Program Era is, typically, superb. McGurl's book deals largely with the relationship between creative writing programs and recent American fiction. Here's an excerpt from Menand's review:

A second thing that “The Program Era” does well, and sometimes entertainingly, is to treat the world of creative writing as an ant farm, in which the writer-ants go about busily executing the tasks they have been programmed for. Writing is a technology, after all, and there is a sense in which human beings who write can be thought of as writing machines. They get tooled in certain ways, and the creative-writing program is a means of tooling. But McGurl treats creative writing as an ant farm where the ants are extremely interesting. He never reduces writers to unthinking products of a system. They are thinking products of a system. After all, few activities make people more self-conscious than participating in a writing workshop. Reflecting on yourself—your experience, your “voice,” your background, your talent or lack of it—is what writing workshops make people do.McGurl thinks that this habit of self-observation is not restricted to writing programs. He thinks that we’re all highly self-conscious ants, because that’s what it means to be a modern person. Constant self-assessment and self-reflection are part of our program. . . . So the fiction that comes out of creative-writing programs may appeal to readers because it rehearses topics—“Who am I?” issues—that are already part of their inner lives.

McGurl's book has gotteb mixed reviews — it appears to be heavily jargonized — so Menand's lucid review may be a good way to get a grip on McGurl's argument.