the post-literate academy and this blog

The Post-Literate Academy – by Mary Harrington:

When it’s so difficult to imagine the academy as we know it surviving the demise of ‘deep literacy’, the prospect of a post-literate academy leaves me wondering: what will be the character of the ‘knowledge’ such an institution produces?

It’s too early to be sure, but my bet is that such ‘knowledge’ will be (indeed, already is) much more directly moral in character than the abstract, analytical, and (aspirationally at least) objectively factual ideal of ‘knowledge’ produced by the print-era university. I also think we can connect this to the profoundly religious flavour of the ‘no debate’ activism now commonplace on universities. In [an essay since paywalled], Eliza Mondegreen describes being on the receiving end of such ‘knowledge’ at a heavily protested at McGill University talk by human rights professer Robert Wintemute — a talk eventually shut down, seemingly with if not the support at least zero objection from university administrators. And it’s my contention that we should get used to it. [Here is a description of the event.] 

That is: I don’t wish to add to the usual chorus of tutting at student activist mobs here, as though these could be fixed with more ‘free speech’. On the contrary: it is my gloomy contention that the more post-literate academia becomes, the more such aggressive and intransigent mob morality will become not the exception but the norm. And there will be no fixing it, because ‘free speech’ was a print-era ideal, and that’s indisputably not where we are any more. 

I think this is right — it rhymes with my argument about the resurgence of what Kołakowski calls the “mythical core” of the social order. 

In some ways the trend Harrington describes here, however otherwise regrettable, is a corrective to a pinched, narrow, and wholly inadequate understanding of “rational” inquiry based on principles thought by such advocates to arise from the Enlightenment. (There were several Enlightenments, no one of which is wholly reconcilable with the others.) Consider this recent essay by Steven Pinker — or, for now, just one brief passage from it: 

Though each of us is blind to the flaws in our own thinking, we tend to be better at spotting the flaws in other people’s thinking, and that is a talent that institutions can put to use. An arena in which one person broaches a hypothesis and others can evaluate it makes us more rational collectively than any of us is individually. 

Examples of these rationality-promoting institutions include science, with its demands for empirical testing and peer review; democratic governance, with its checks and balances and freedom of speech and the press; journalism, with its demands for editing and fact-checking; and the judiciary, with its adversarial proceedings. 

This all sounds lovely, but the peer-review system is fundamentally broken; the only thing that any journalistic outlet does reliably well is to point to the ways that other journalistic outlets don’t edit or fact-check; many institutions of representative democracy (the U.S. Congress, the U.K. Parliament) have effectively abandoned their responsibilities; and the Federal judiciary is widely believed to be made up of politicians in robes.

Whether things are quite as bad as the linked stories indicate may be debated, but that the public doesn’t trust any of these institutions is unquestionable. That’s at least in part because the public knows the truth one of the great maxims of the Enlightenment (that movement that Pinker claims to be a spokesman for): “Of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” You don’t have to be a fully-paid-up member of the Critical Theory Brigade to suspect that appeals to disinterested rational inquiry are often thinly disguised schemes by certain people to retain institutional and cultural power. 

But then, so also are the campaigns of what I call Left Purity Culture. I don’t know how you would decide whether our institutions — and especially our academic institutions, which I’m especially concerned with in this post and elsewhere — are worse when they adopt (a) a simplistic model of rational truth-seeking or (b) a simplistic model of myth-driven advocacy for supposed social justice. I certainly can’t decide. But my task here, on this blog, seems to me the same either way. If you don’t know what that is, I’ve described it in the following posts: 

And these posts also explain why this blog’s motto is “More lighting of candles, less cursing the darkness”: While some self-appointed instruments of Justice are hard at work extinguishing the candles of culture and art, while self-appointed custodians of Reason are screaming their denunciations of the destroyers, it often seems to be that there aren’t enough people cupping their hands around the candles that remain to keep them lit. So that’s my job here. 

And it’s worth remembering another point. In two of those posts I quote a passage from one of Tom Stoppard’s plays commending a certain kind of trust: trust that those who come after us will pick up and carry further what we have left behind. Most of our institutions, and above all the great majority of our academic institutions, have rejected the very idea of cultural preservation and transmission. They are occupied and dominated by consumers and destroyers; and precisely the same is true of the shouting, slavering haters who call themselves conservatives. They conserve nothing; none of these people, putatively Left or putatively Right, preserve anything, nor do they build and repair.

But we have so, so many artists — writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, architects — who have left us a wonderful inheritance; and many who even today are adding to that inheritance. At the very least we have to be sure that that inheritance doesn’t stop with us. Perhaps our circumstances militate against greatness in art; but we can do our part to make greatness possible again when the times are less craven.