April 16, 2004

Balm in Gilead

It bothers me that some humanists are so unscientific.

Consider the recent article by Camille Paglia, "The Magic of Images: Word and Picture in a Media Age", in the winter 2004 issue of the journal Arion. Paglia notes a trend (kids today can't focus on books or even on still images), identifies its cause (television, PCs and video games), and suggests a solution (iconology). I suspect that she's wrong about the trend, and I'm pretty sure that her ideas about the cause are nonsense. If so, this means that her solution is just a reasonable way to teach the history of art, rather than a recipe for the Salvation of Western Civilization.

The trend that concerns her is this: "Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S." She offers a McLuhanesque analysis of alleged causes, replete with references to "physiological optics" and Hermann von Helmholtz. I don't think that this analysis makes much sense, but that's a topic for another post. The issue today is her claim of "cultural dissipation since the 1960s", where "the new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer but deprived of a solid primary education, has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture", and lacks "the most basic introduction to structure and chronology".

Paglia offers no evidence for this trend except personal anecdotes (her friends at SUNY Binghamton in 1965 "gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov") and assertions of authority ("as a classroom teacher for over thirty years"). She's so sure that her own interpretation of her own experience is correct that she accepts it without examination, exemplifying what she calls "the foolish, belligerent confidence of my own generation, with its egomaniacal quest for the individual voice". Perhaps her friends at SUNY in 1965 were not typical of students then? or perhaps her impressions of those taking her classes at the University of the Arts are not typical of students now? or perhaps her relationship to students has changed as she's gotten older? If she's ever tried to answer questions like these, she doesn't mention it.

There has been a lot of commentary on Paglia's article -- technorati finds links in 43 sources -- and nearly of it has been positive. For instance, the usually sensible Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass writes that

English teachers know her claims about our collective degraded relationship to language to be true. They see it in their students, who object to reading long things, who object to reading hard things, who never think to look up words or ideas they don't know, who struggle not only to perceive linguistic nuance but also to keep track of plot twists and character names, who cannot independently picture character and scene inside their heads, who cannot grasp the rhyme or reason of verse that is not free verse.

My first reaction to all of this is to wonder how to make it consistent with a piece of external evidence, namely the trend towards ever-longer popular novels. How could David Foster Wallace have become a best-selling author in 1996 with a 1079-page novel that includes nearly a hundred pages of pseudo-scholarly endnotes? Why has Neal Stephenson just cranked out a second 900-page tome on the adventures of 17th-century intellectuals? How is that the first novel in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, published in 1978, is only 256 pages long in the "revised and expanded edition", while the seventh in the series, published in 2004, is 768 pages? What about Margaret George's recent 964-page "Memoirs of Cleopatra"?

Hasn't someone told these folks that "interest in and patience with long, complex books have alarmingly diminished"? The plural of anecdote is not data, but a systematic survey of the publishing industry could provide some evidence about whether readers are more or less interested in long, complex books now than they were 40 years ago.

My second reaction to Paglia's jeremiad is that it's not consistent with my own experience of students. As a college teacher and as the Faculty Master of a college residence, I find that some students have a lot of interest in long, difficult books; some have a little; some have none at all. Some students are fascinated by linguistic nuance and others could care less. Some have a terrific grasp of structure and chronology, while others seem to experience literature and life as a sort of impressionist blur. My memory of students in 1965 is that they were pretty similar, in these respects, to students today. That is, they were very diverse. I'm not confident that my own experiences support any differences in the relative proportions of types between 1965 and 2004, but in any case, there are big demographic and cultural differences between my two samples, never mind the difference in viewpoint.

The thing is, my subjective impressions don't define what the facts are, any more than Paglia's and O'Connor's do. One of the achievements of the human species has been to find ways to deal with disagreements like this, by assembling and evaluating intersubjectively valid evidence. That's the normal way to proceed in the sciences, and it's also the traditional goal of humanistic scholarship. However, it seems to have been abandoned by some intellectuals, in particular those like Paglia who aspire to be media stars on the basis of their "egomaniacal quest for the individual voice". This transformation has perhaps been assisted by the infusion into the humanities, via literary theory, of large doses of the kind of continental philosphy that regards "truth" as a matter of social convention, charisma and power.

Paglia's claims are not some inconsequential little thrown-off aperçu, whose validity doesn't matter enough to investigate. She says that TV and video games have ruined the brains of American young people, so that they have "degraded sensitivity to the individual word and reduced respect for organized argument", and "cannot sense context and thus become passive to the world, which they do not see as an arena for action". If that were true, it would be more important than AIDS, more important than cancer, more important than racism, more important than terrorism; and it would call for a more significant response than Paglia's remedy, which is to show slides of Byzantine icons and crystal skulls.

Personally, I happen to think that it's false. But if I thought it was true, I'd spend a lot of time and energy finding evidence to persuade others.

Paglia feels that "the rise of electronic media" has caused a "massive transformation in Western culture", so that "interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S."

What I take away from her article is that the influence of media attention and bad philosophy have caused a massive transformation in humanistic culture, so that interest in and patience with rational inquiry have alarmingly diminished among people like Camille Paglia.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 16, 2004 10:39 AM