Category: Institutions

A Bit More on the Police

I should have made clear in my previous post that the idea of hiring military vets as police officers does not mean an endorsement of the “militarization” of the police in terms of tactics used by and equipment supplied to our domestic police forces.  It was shocking to me to see the Kenosha police roll up in an armored vehicle.  Such battlefield armaments should never be deployed on American streets.

And my post should also have been understood as a push-back against the “few bad apples” defense of the police.  What is needed is a wide-scale change of police culture.  The way the police think of themselves, the forms their relations among themselves take, and especially the way they think of and relate to the communities they serve, needs a drastic overhaul.

Two stories that have come out in the past two days put an exclamation point on this need for a total culture change.  In fact, the need for that total change is so compelling that I am inclined to think we need to tear the current police systems in our cities down to the ground and start from scratch in rebuilding them.

The first story points to the evidence that within the Los Angeles County police force there are active gangs that, as with non-police gangs, use violence as a way to create membership—and keep members from defecting.  Here’s the link: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/09/l-a-county-sheriffs-department-has-a-gang-problem.html

I will confess to typical (?) liberal naiveté at this point.  Just as with the Trump administration, the level of evil—and its straight-forward baldness—never fails to surprise me.  By now, you would think I would have learned.

The second story is about police-union-issued “get out of jail” free cards.  A bit of an exaggeration on my part.  The cards just help you if you get pulled over by a cop for traffic violations or fairly similar matters.  The card tells the cop to let you off because you have a relative in the police force.  But—you saw this coming—somehow the cards don’t get distributed as widely to non-white cops as to white ones.  The link:

Is the culture in the military any better than the toxic culture of our police departments? Maybe I am being naïve in that respect as well.  But Heather Cox Richardson, in her newsletter for today, speaks to this issue.  The full text quotes Tammy Duckworth at some length.  Here’s the key passage from Richardson:

“Since at least 2018, Democrats, especially Democratic women, have advanced a vision of military service that departs from the Republican emphasis on heroic individualism. Instead, they emphasize teamwork, camaraderie, and community, and the recognition that that teamwork means every single soldier, not just a few visible heroes, matters.”

My own (admittedly distanced) contact with the military (through my interactions with both veterans and active service members who are students or colleagues) does give me the generally positive vision of military culture that I articulated in my last post.  But maybe I am just toeing a line the Democrats have been pushing in order to enhance their patriotic bona fides, not a vision that comes anywhere close to the truth of the matter. 

It is certainly weird that the Trump administration has led Democrats to think more highly of the CIA and the FBI, to the extent that both those agencies (like the military) have displayed at least some push-back against Trump—a push-back that appears motivated by a recognition of how much damage he is doing to this country.  Their patriotism (country above Trump) stands in stark contrast to the whole Republican party, who have become Trump’s enablers. 

Still, I don’t want to go very far down that road.  The military is wildly over-funded, while the CIA is almost a completely unmitigated disaster.  The National security state, in toto, is one of those features of the American political landscape that needs to be dismantled, radically re-thought, and completely re-designed.  Our inability to do such work with any of our dysfunctional systems—from health care to the Electoral College, not to mention the police and prevalent discriminatory practices in housing and education—is why it is so hard to summon any optimism about the future of our society.  Our politics currently renders it impossible even to discuss these needed reforms, no less actually begin to undertake them. 

Trying to Understand Practice

I think it fair to say that the rejection of the term “experience” in favor of talking about “practices” is motivated by the worry that “experience” does not take the social dimensions of human being-in-the-world adequately into account.

A preference for the term “practices” can often be traced back to the influence of Wittgenstein.  Certainly, many of the puzzles surrounding practices were enunciated by Wittgenstein and still trouble those who want to use that concept.

I don’t think Wittgenstein uses the term “practices” himself.  He talks of “forms of life” and “language games” in ways that would align with some understandings of “practices.”  I don’t know where the current use of the term “practices” comes from.  Kant wrote about the difference between “theory and practice” and Marx used the term “praxis,” but those usages are not quite the same as the full-blown “social theory of practices” (the title of a useful book by Stephen Turner (University of Chicago Press, 1994).

Important for me is that a reliance on the concept of practice goes hand-in-hand with pluralism.  There are multiple practices—and that would be one objection to the Deweyean concept of “experience.”  Dewey seems to insist that all experiences have the same basic traits, which is why (for instance) he tries to make the “esthetic” (in Art As Experience) continuous with experience tout court instead of deeming the aesthetic a distinctive kind of experience with its own features.

My understanding of practice is derived from Wittgenstein, Bourdieu (key texts: Outline of a Theory of Practice [Cambridge UP, 1977] and The Logic of Practice [Stanford UP, 1990]), John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality [Simon and Shuster, 1995], Andrew Pickering, The Mangle of Practice [University of Chicago Press, 1995], and Bruno Latour, Science in Action [Harvard UP, 1987]. I also learned a lot from a collection of essays gathered together under the title of The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory, ed. by Theordore Schatzki et. al. [Routledge, 2001].  As you can tell from the dates on these sources, I was working on this topic in the 1990s—and taught a grad seminar on theories of action in 2002.  That work culminated in my essay “Action as Meaningful Behavior” (which can be accessed through the “Public Essays” tab on the front page of this blog)—an essay that does not use the term “practice” but which does touch on some of themes I will consider in this post.

Enough throat clearing. What is a “practice”?  Not an easy question to answer since there are some very different things that can be collected under the term.  Let’s start with a fairly straight-forward example: playing the piano.  This is an activity that takes place within a structured field.  The “social” element of the practice, then, is the existence of that field.  There has to be the edifice of Western music, with the way it organizes sound into notes and also motivates the production of the instrument, the piano, that produces the appropriate notes. (Chinese music is differently structured and the piano is an instrument that is irrelevant to, useless for playing, Chinese music.)

There also has to be a practitioner—the one who plays the piano.  Crucially, there also has to be a process of education.  You can’t just sit down to a piano and play it.  It takes years of training—and of practice.  You can’t learn to play the piano by reading a book.  You need to actually physically do it, moving from a starting point of almost complete ineptitude toward dizzying heights of proficiency on the part of those who become virtuosos.

The practice of piano playing spawns various social formations.  There will be professional organizations of practitioners; there will be institutions like conservatories; there will be networks of managers, agents, impressarios, philanthropists, and others who arrange for and publicize performances. There will be concert halls.  There will be critics who evaluate performances, scholars who study the history of the practice, and theorists who try to determine its enabling and generating conditions.  This is Latour territory, thinking about the multiple agents, with varying roles, required to maintain a practice—where “maintain” also entails a certain kind of communal policing of “what counts” as a valid example of the practice, what innovations are accepted, which ones rejected, and which enactments are deemed “better” or “worse.”

Dewey’s notion of “experience” fails to take into account what we might call the inevitable human audience for our actions, for our ways of interacting with the environment.  We are judged constantly by others—and the standards for that judgment are relative to the practice we are seen as participating in.  A good parent is distinct from a good piano player.  It is within the understood parameters of the relevant practice that a performance is understood (i.e. the very meaning of the performed action only makes sense in relation to the practice) and judged.  In other words, we have to name what the action is in general terms—parenting, playing the piano—before we have any way of assessing it, or even comprehending it.  What is she doing?, we might ask in puzzlement.  The answer to that question will (in most cases) gives us the name of a practice.

For Bourdieu (and many others, going back to Wittgenstein’s interest in games), the best way to think about practices is through the example of games.  A game is an activity that is structured by rules, but (crucially) not governed by rules.  The rule in baseball is that three strikes and you are out.  But the rules say nothing about the strategies, the techniques, a pitcher might employ in the effort to achieve a strike-out.  And the rules are not the source of the motivation.  The players play to win—and there are various socially provided rewards for winning—but the degree of compulsion leveraged to make someone play a game and care about its outcomes differs from one social setting to another.  Students are often forced to engage in athletic games they would rather give a miss.  More broadly, the structured field of economic competition for incomes within a capitalist society is a game few can avoid playing.

To think of the market economy as a game brings up many of the complications of “practices.”  Yes, there are identifiable rules in such a society—starting with the legal definition of and protection of “property.”  There is also the social institution of money itself.  Searle, in a formula I adapt in my essay on action, says that fields are structured in the following way: A counts as B under conditions C.  Searle mostly applies this formula to the establishment of social institutions, but I use it somewhat differently.  Money is a key example for Searle.  This piece of paper only counts (only functions) as legal tender under very elaborate conditions. There is a kind of magic about the social transformation that turns something into something else.  Games make this magic very obvious.  I step across a line carrying an oblong ball.  A perfectly ordinary action.  But under a set of very elaborate conditions that action “counts” as a touchdown.  The conditions?  I have to be playing a game of American football; time must be “in,”; the “play” has to have been “run” within the rules (no penalty flags), etc. etc.  Football, like money, is socially instituted.

Practices, then, are actions taken within conditioned circumstances, where the conditions are socially generated.  Searle focuses on the structure of that conditioning.  Latour focuses on the multiple agents and their ongoing actions required to keep the conditioned field operating.  Bourdieu focuses on two things: the strategies employed by agents to gain prominence, acclaim, financial rewards and the like within the game, and the ways agents are habituated to the games they play, taking them mostly for granted.  He adapts from Aristotle the term habitus, which he defines as a primarily unconscious “disposition” carried in our very bodies.  Thus, the trained pianist doesn’t think about her performance.  In fact, thinking most likely would only lead to mucking things up.  She has to let her body take over.

More generally, within a society’s field of social interactions there are unwritten rules, but they are clearly perceptible to one who looks, rules about tone of voice, how close to stand to some one else, how loud to talk etc.  The discomfort generated by some one who breaks that rules—or the embarrassment felt if one breaks them one self—are instances of the body’s having acquired the habits, or dispositions, appropriate to a set of social norms.  Thus, our interactions with the environment are mediated through socially generated notions of decorum, just as the scientist’s interaction with nature is mediated through her long training in the protocols of her disciplinary practice.  The internalization of those protocols is what Bourdieu calls “habitus.”  They become “second nature,” barely registered, taken for granted.

Several problems arise at this point.  For starters, few practices have a clear initiating moment when the rule book, the foundational conditions C, are enunciated.  Basketball is the exception, not the rule.  (Basketball was invented out of whole cloth by a man named Naimsmith—although the game he devised has been fairly radically altered over the years.) The US Constitution is a similar exception—and runs alongside common case law in its setting of legal/political conditions.  Much more frequent is an activity taking and changing shape through the course of actual interactions.  The game of baseball existed long before its rules were codified and formalized.  But if that is the case, then how can we say the practice is dependent on the structuring conditions—since the practice seems to predate the structure?

This puzzle also afflicts the use of language.  A child certainly has to learn how to speak.  But that learning does not appear dependent on knowing the structures of language or the rules for correct usage.  The child “norms” herself—in terms of pronunciation, and using words the ways others use them—through various feedback received from other users, not through being versed in the “rules.”  In fact, a good case can be made that there are no rules of grammar.  The so-called rules of grammar are just reports on the regularities that have emerged through speakers of a language “norming” themselves to one another in order to facilitate communication.  And that absence of rules explains why languages are constantly changing even if the pace of change is slowed down by the contrary pressures of conformity in order to enhance mutual comprehension.

In short, there is no instituting moment for a language, in which it was laid down that the pronounced sound “dog” (A) would count as referring to a particular sort of animal (B) under the condition that we were speaking English (C).  The same applies to syntactical rules.  In this vision of language, it is all pragmatics—with “rules” (regularities plus all those troublesome “irregular” verbs and other forms) generated by usage, not the other way around (i.e. usage enabled and generated by the structuring rules).  Hence Wittgenstein’s emphasis on “use” and his general skepticism about “following a rule” as any kind of explanation for how one proceeds, how one “goes on.”  (I am pushing here a contested reading of Wittgenstein since various commentators read him in exactly the opposite way, seeing him as determined to identify the rules underlying practices such as language use.  I think those commentators are hostages to the tradition’s search for certainty and transcendental conditions—exactly the parts of the tradition that I think Wittgenstein [like Dewey] was trying to overcome.  I take it as ironic—and evidence of the tradition’s mesmeric powers—that Wittgenstein’s critique of it is read as yet another engagement with its obsessive concerns.)

Wittgenstein thus leads us to the idea that we are making up our practices as we go along.  The image he uses is the repair of a ship even as it is sailing. There is no rule book for courtship, for economic activities (capitalist or otherwise), or for speaking a language the way that there are rule books for games. Games, it turns out, are a bad analogy for practices because practices are more chaotic, more free-form, more open, and more dynamic than structured fields.  Better to talk of a continuum here—and to locate the continual efforts (some more successful than others) to police practices, to gain some handle over their chaotic potential.  Thus, a “discipline” can be understood as a way of deploying authority (and/or power) to designate which activities “count” as legitimate within the relevant practice.  “Outlaw” or heterodox practitioners find it difficult to make headway against the organized forces of orthodoxy—and we can recognize the stratagems (from drastic to petty, yet cruel) used to stifle heretics (the inquisition, the denial of tenure, the cutting off of funding and access to jobs within the practice, the mocking of those who don’t exhibit good breeding or good usage). Of course, the heretics are often later hailed as “innovators,” as those who introduced needed reforms and novelties.

Thus, even in the absence of formalized and structuring rules, the notion of practice seems useful because it points us toward the organizations of practitioners (sometimes with credentialing powers and almost always with the power of accepting or rejecting someone as a fellow practitioner) and institutions that enable the practice to continue (by arranging for its public performances and garnering the financial and other resources –including physical spaces—for its enactments).  In short, unlike the term “experience,” practices points us toward all the social pieces that need to be in place for many (I don’t think all) interactions.

I will end with one recurring puzzle.  If, as I am inclined to believe, practices are not very rule bound, how does one learn them?  How does one acquire “a feel” for the game?  This brings us back to my quarrel with Joseph North.  There is no “method” for learning how to produce a compelling “close reading.” You don’t learn to play baseball by reading the rule book. And you certainly don’t find happiness in love or discover the secret to being a great writer by reading the manual.  (The wild success of self-help books attests to the unkillable wish that how-to guides could do the trick.)

There are techniques, tricks of the trade, that have emerged out of the ways previous practitioners have performed that activity. It helps to have a teacher who knows those techniques. But the only way to learn is to wade in oneself and have a go.  And then your performance will receive the feedback from others that leads you to do it somewhat differently next time around.  That’s how the child learns to speak.  By doing it—and by being corrected in some instances, understood in others, and even applauded in some.  Trial by doing—within a field with no set determinants, but with both centrifugal and centripetal forces influencing its present day norms and regularities.  That’s the field that Latour wants to describe in his work—taking into account what motivates scientists, the kinds of feedback they receive from both human and non-human interlocutors, the institutions within which the work takes place, the credentialing and other ways of distinguishing legitimate from unacknowledged work,  the instruments that mediate the interactions with the non-human, and the uses to which what scientists produce are put.

Cakes, Ale, and Mellon (2)

My post on the Mellon Foundation’s announcement that it would orient all its future funding decisions toward projects that advance social justice generated a conversation on Facebook.  You can read the give-and-take by going to my FaceBook page.

Here I want to make my position clear (which is hard because I have mixed feelings on the topic)—and elaborate on my rationale for those feelings.

Let me state my opinion at the outset—and then the rest of the post tries to explain that opinion.  Mellon has been the biggest foundation funder (by orders of magnitude) of work in the arts and humanities for many years now.  It was especially important because it funded institutions—museums, theaters, dance companies, learned societies, universities, small presses and the like—as well as individuals.  And (this is my big point) is was one of very few places where people in the arts and humanities did not have to justify their work by reasons external to the work itself.  You certainly had to convince Mellon that the work you were doing was of excellent quality and make a case that it was deemed significant and superb in the relevant field, but you didn’t have to claim external benefits.

Why is that important?  Because the arts and humanities cannot exist in a market society unsubsidized.  The major source of subsidy is the educational system, from kindergarten through to universities.  95% (to pick a plausible number out of thin air) of artists and humanists will make the majority of their income from teaching.  And that means the arts and humanities are continually burdened with making the case that they are pedagogically useful.  The insistence that that case be made—accompanied by an increasing skepticism about that case—is familiar to anyone who works in these fields. So Jessica Berman is absolutely right that we need to be adept at making that case since we will be called on—repeatedly—to make it.

But that need to make the case means the arts and humanities are continually and increasingly on the defensive, trapped within a game they cannot win but must play.  Thus the endless shouting into the wind about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  I am not saying those arguments are untrue.  I am simply saying they never convince the people who demand that we make those arguments even though they have closed their minds to them long ago.  It’s a pointless, frustrating, undermining game.  What a relief it was to not have to play it to secure support from Mellon.

Now let me tell you a true story.  I taught in the Humanities Department of the Eastman School of Music for eight year.  My students were all aspiring musicians.  Because I am deeply committed to the notion of an informed citizenry, my classes there were usually designed to give students an understanding of the state of these United States.  At the end of one semester, a promising young pianist came to tell me he was going to abandon music because the world was in too bad a shape for him to continue in good conscience.  I hope that you would in a similar circumstance be as horrified as I was.

That was not what I meant at all, I hastened to tell him.  I want you to be an informed democratic citizen, but I never intended to make you think you should give up trying to become a concert pianist.  You have an enormous talent and the world needs great pianists.  Your first responsibility to yourself and to the world is the nurturing of your talent.

Here comes the hard part.  I don’t think Beethoven and golf are significantly different as human endeavors.  Both are difficult, intricate, capable of being endlessly fascinating.  To become a master of either you need to be obsessed to the point of being a bit crazy, certainly to the point of neglecting much else that most of us think part and parcel of a well-rounded life.  Both deliver something to the practitioner (discipline, interest, satisfaction/frustration) and to those who enjoy watching/listening to adept practitioners (fandom, pleasure, the joy of watching something very difficult being done superbly well).  I don’t really see (despite the somersaults we go through—and it is always somersaults if Adorno is our guide) that claims about why Beethoven should be in the school curriculum but not golf hold water.  If it’s complexity and mental agility and an ability to pay close attention that we are after, golf could do the trick just as well.

This last point is driven home (admittedly to my despair) by the fact that sports are a much larger presence in our schools than the arts and humanities.  Certainly in terms of money spent, sports (at least from ninth grade on) garner much larger budgets.  And when (as is seldom the case, but not never) sports have to justify their presence in the curriculum, they offer reasons that echo the ones trotted out to justify the liberal arts.  Reasons about mental discipline, learning to work with others etc. (Side note: isn’t it wonderful that Stanford has dropped eleven sports instead of cutting the music department?  Let’s hope other universities follow their lead.)

What about social justice?  I hate to think of the somersaults that are going to be required to demonstrate that work on Beethoven will contribute to social justice.  (As I said in my first post, I predict the route taken will be to make Beethoven more available to audiences traditionally unexposed to him.)  Some authors (Dickens, Carolyn Forché) are going to be much easier to link to a social justice agenda than others (Nabokov, Jorie Graham).

Even with the more obviously politically relevant authors, I think the rationale is often a subterfuge.  I think of all the work in the past thirty years about Melville’s relationship to slavery.  Solid work—but driven, I think, primarily by an interest in Melville not by an interest in slavery.  Melville was not an important figure in abolitionist circles; if you are really interested in the history of slavery in the US, of attitudes toward it, and its practices, Melville is way down the list of places you would go.  He only acquired any significance long after slavery was abolished, and our investment in him now is disciplinary (having to do with the canon) and aesthetic (in the sense that we think him a superb novelist).  Yes, we want to know about his reactions to slavery—but not because they tell us all that much about slavery and abolition efforts, but because they tell us about Melville who we think is significant enough as an artist that knowing more about him is worthwhile.  What drives the scholarship is not the advancement of social justice, but the advancement of our knowledge of Melville.

I know I am going to be misunderstood on this point.  So let me state it in different words.  Literary studies bestows authority on certain figures; it has a canon.  Efforts to break open that canon—and to examine the processes that go into its formation—are (I think) directly political.  But such efforts have been modestly successful.  The undergraduate curriculum, even for majors, remains mostly canonical.  And scholarship, while certainly more historicist over the past forty years, still tends to be anchored by one or two “major” figures even as it explores less honored (or taught) writers.  It is the authority attached to those major figures that still matters greatly—with its assumption that 1) learning more about those writers is a self-justifying scholarly motive in the discipline, and 2) that what those major figures thought and did is significant because of who they are. (The kind of circular reasoning about significance that drove Barbara Herrnstein Smith crazy in her attack on aesthetics, Contingencies of Value.)

To state for about the millionth time in my lifetime, my basic take on this relationship between art/scholarship and politics.  I just don’t buy that writing about social class in Dickens is political, and certainly don’t see it as an advancement of social justice.  Political work engages in changing institutions, in working on facts on the ground.  Scholarly work can change political opinions, just as Dickens’ novels can, but we have a very attenuated sense of the political if we think that our job is done when we teach Bleak House and write an essay about its views of social responsibility.  If, in fact, our reason for being in the classroom and doing our scholarship is political, then we are acting in bad faith.  If you really take politics as your primary motive in life, then making art or writing literary criticism is not what you should be doing.

I don’t think we advance social justice one iota if we confuse direct political action with the indirect attention to political questions that can occur in our classrooms and in our scholarship.  So my fear is that Mellon’s insistence that we tie our work to social justice will just abet this confusion of the direct with the indirect.  It is hard enough to be honest about our motives for what we devote our time and energy to.  And it is equally hard to be realistic about what our work can and cannot accomplish.  I think Mellon’s new orientation will encourage comforting lies we already too often are tempted to tell ourselves.

To be blunt: I hate the gestural politics on display at the Whitney and in the halls of the MLA.  It’s cheap in the sense that it costs its practitioner nothing and seems mostly directed at garnering the approval of his peers.  There are, of course, notable exceptions—Banksy, James Baldwin, and Edward Said come to mind immediately—so I need to be careful not to claim that it is impossible for art and scholarship to be political.  But it is damn difficult.

If our work as artists and teachers is not political, what is it?  I have backed myself into a corner here, pushing me toward an answer I would have scorned most of my (misdirected? misunderstood?) career. (In short, I was as committed, maybe even more so, to literary studies’ efforts to be political–and thus avoided saying, to myself or others, what I was actually practicing everyday as a teacher.) Cultivation of a sensibility of open-ness and appreciation.

Another story to indicate what I mean.  Some years back I discovered that all the students in a class I was teaching had never seen “Casablanca.”  My deepest commitments were brought home to me.  I didn’t deeply care if they never read Pope’s “Epistle to Man,” but to never see “Casablanca” would be to go to the grave without having passed through life.  My goal as a teacher was to open eyes to the richness of the word and the life it was possible to live in that world. To move my students toward the “quickened consciousness” Pater extolled. That goal did mean I wanted them to see how cruel, how unequal, how unjust the contemporary world is, but bringing that point home was part of the larger project of their seeing “life” and “the world” in all its many-sided splendor and squalor.  And it is in the arts that that splendor and squalor are most fully on display.

This last point brings me back to cakes and ale.  William James was interested in what he called “moral holidays.”  He did not mean the term pejoratively.  He knew that everyone of us grants ourselves such holidays.  So how do we justify them?  Peter Singer is the utilitarian philosopher who makes the absolutely stringent case against such holidays.  There is no way, Singer argues, to justify spending $150 to see “Hamilton” when that same sum, given to Oxfam, can feed 40 people.  No cakes and ale without an obligatory side dish of guilt.

Singer’s challenge returns us to my Eastman student’s crisis of conscience about playing the piano.  We can do somersaults to justify our cakes an ale. Even when admitting they are no good for the world or even to ourselves (sugar and alcohol?), we will talk about psychological well-being, letting off steam, all work and no play, etc. etc.  Because, of course, we all do take moral holidays.

My utopia is a world where we are relieved of the felt necessity to justify the holidays.  They are just good in and of themselves.  (Of course, traditional aesthetics keeps returning to this issue of intrinsic value again and again.)  There is nothing wrong about pleasure, about things that fascinate us by their intricacy and difficulty (we can imagine the “holidays whisperer” crooning in our ear.)

Hannah Arendt, with her obsession with amor mundi (love of the world), approached these issues in a somewhat different way.  She talks about the “freedom from politics” as among the freedoms to be protected and cherished.  One hallmark of totalitarianism is that everything becomes political; nothing gets to escape signifying one’s political allegiances, and one is either applauded or persecuted for every single taste or action. We are in a bad way when wearing a mask during a pandemic becomes politicized.  Zones of the non-political are liberating in the way that “moral holidays” are.

Just think of how dreary a world without music, without novels, without holidays would be. That world would certainly be hard to love. That’s all the justification we need.  More importantly, it is all the justification we are going to get.  All the other rationales are threadbare, barely plausible.

Mellon used to be a place where you didn’t have to do lip service by trotting out those all too familiar rationalizations.  Apparently no more.

Cakes and Ale and the Mellon Foundation

Sir Toby:
Dost thou think because thou
art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Twelfth Night Act 2, scene 3, 114–115

The Mellon Foundation has announced that, starting now, all its funding will prioritize work in the arts and humanities that advances “social justice.”  I will admit to very mixed feelings on reading this news.  Here’s a link about the shift:

https://www.philanthropy.com/article/Elizabeth-Alexander-Outlines/249109?fbclid=IwAR0-ARJuOWgBIeQM4DDgYdfxuQGagKveA_vvFodBKopXeCY1_UFYe2iU9GU

 

First, a little bit about Mellon before my reaction.  This year the Foundation will make $500 million worth of grants.  They are the gorilla in the world of funding for the arts and humanities.  Only the NEH and NEA are even remotely comparable in terms of supporting organizations and big collaborative projects.  Individual fellowships are available from the ACLS and places like the National Humanities Center, but Mellon has been the place for infrastructural support of institutions.

Mellon has gone through a sea-change over the past thirty years.  In the 1990s, they were an astoundingly elite organization, with their humanities funding going almost exclusively to private universities with very few exceptions.  In the early 2000s they decided it was time to expand their portfolio and came to the University of North Carolina.  It has always been true that Mellon comes to you; there is no application process, just an invitation from Mellon to submit a proposal. It will be interesting to see if the new emphasis on social justice will be accompanied by a more open application process.  Getting in the door at Mellon has always been extraordinarily difficult, especially for those further down the prestige chain.

UNC’s first proposal was for Mellon to support our fledgling Latino Studies program.  Mellon was not interested in anything so politically fraught; it ended up funding our second proposal instead—for a program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS).  Mellon’s evolution can be charted in the fact that its next two humanities projects it funded at UNC were in the digital humanities and then in the public humanities.  In other words, between 2004 when it funded MEMS and 2016 when it funded the Public Humanities Program, Mellon had moved from focusing on elite traditional scholarship to encouraging emerging humanities practices (digital humanities) and then on to supporting efforts to move the humanities out into public space beyond the university.

I have, over the past ten years or so, taken to asking various people: “do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature in fifty years?”  I take their answer as a litmus test of how far their heads are stuck in the sand.  To me it seems obvious that certain forms of literary scholarship are fast becoming dinosaurs.  And it also seems (to me, at least) incredibly difficult to justify the study of English literature as crucial to just about any good (social or individual) that we can name.  Do we really think our society is going to keep subsidizing the study of Dickens—and keep requiring that students read Dickens?  Only institutional inertia keeps the practice alive.

And yet.  Do we want to live in a world where no one reads Dickens?  In a society that says we can’t afford Dickens?  That we have other more important matters to attend to?  Even when the rationale is “social justice,” not economic viability, the reasoning is still utilitarian.  Activities without an impact, a deliverable, must go by the boards.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations abandoned the arts and humanities some years back.  The Mellon Foundation became the only place to go.  Mellon was a strong supporter of humanities institutes like the one I directed at UNC.  And it was a very generous supporter of arts programming at UNC, most memorably in our extravagant celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—featuring commissioned performances, an academic conference, classes on modernism, and visiting artists.

It is hard to see how that Rite of Spring project could claim to contribute to social justice.  Is every dance company that looks to Mellon for support going to have to show how its choreography contributes to social justice?  Must humanities scholarship claim a social impact to garner Mellon money?

I have said my feelings are mixed.  I understand that Dickens scholarship may be a luxury we cannot afford.  It seems presumptuous to claim one is entitled to make a living teaching and studying Dickens.  For many years, I evaluated proposals for dissertation fellowships from across the university.  It was always difficult to balance a project from Public Health on breast cancer in non-white communities against a thesis on Melville.  The significance and social contribution of the one was obvious, while the work on Melville seemed like fiddling while Rome burned.  But what kind of society do we end up with if we declare non-utilitarian pursuits are a “privilege” that must be renounced?  No cakes and ale for the likes of you.

The arts and humanities in the United States have, to a very large extent, retreated to university campuses. (Outside of two or three big cities, any innovative or “avant-garde” artistic endeavors survive because of university support.)  In the midst of the pandemic, universities are in dire straits—and it doesn’t take a weatherman to see any ill wind as bringing more cuts to arts and humanities programs/departments that were already in a precarious position prior to COVID-19.  Mellon has been an increasingly crucial partner with universities since 2000—and has in the last twenty years extended that partnership far beyond the elite privates and the public flagships.

What is that partnership going to look like under the banner of “social justice”?  Access and affordability are certainly social justice issues—and there is much Mellon can do to further those goals.  So maybe more traditional (or more experimental), less immediately presentist, work will be supported if it has credible plans for reaching formerly unreached audiences.  But just how potentially popular will something have to be to qualify?

It’s ironic that I have these doubts and fears since I spent most of my academic career trying to push my discipline of literary studies and my university’s curriculum toward a more direct engagement with the analysis of contemporary society and its problems (injustices and inequities).  I think my hesitation now has to do with what seems to me an oversimplified vision of the relation of the arts to social issues.  I don’t think—at least in many cases—that there is a direct path from artistic vision or humanities scholarship to social effects.  Reading novels does not guarantee that the reader will care about, much less do anything to promote, social justice.  If Mellon insists on such direct social pay-offs, it will abandon large swathes of work in the arts and the humanities that it has supported in the past.  Such work really has no place else to go for support—and its loss will be felt in an artistic and scholarly world that will be diminished (less diverse) because Mellon has put its thumb on the scale.