The theme of an upcoming American Studies Association conference pretty much sums up so much that is wrong with modern humanities studies in higher education.
Ready for it? “The Fun and the Fury: New Dialectics of Pleasure and Pain In the Post-American Century.”
“The call for proposals for the 2014 ASA convention in Los Angeles invited fun and fury, critiques of the good life, alternative realities, queer utopias and nothing short of a ‘new dialectics of pain and pleasure,’ ” the association website’s gushes, adding:
Covering enormous ground (“From Furious Orientals to Funny Arabs,” for example), engaging the serious (“Matters of Life and Death”) and the flippant (“Eat Me: Consuming Urban Cultures”), not to mention the filthy (“The Filth and the Fury: The Cultural Politics of Waste in America”), the program represents this newly disorganized dialectic of pleasure and pain and spends considerable time outlining how and when and where a definition of pleasure for some might open out onto an experience of pain for others. Some papers clearly address the class politics of pleasure and others attend to the vexed issues of racial pain and the voyeuristic pleasures it provokes. A special roundtable on Steve McQueen’s controversial film, 12 Years A Slave (2013), investigates the ways in which slavery has been transformed into visual (dis)pleasure and considers the function of spectacle within the film.
The esteemed Professor Steven Hayward, referencing the conference’s agenda, summed up the claptrap as follows:
American Studies is intended to be a cross-discipline combining literature, history, political science, and one or two other fields (anthropology and philosophy perhaps), and that’s what it did when I emphasized the field through the History and Government departments at Claremont more than 30 years ago. It was a wonderful way of having truly interdisciplinary discussion on key issues past and present.
But today, like so many other areas in the humanities, American Studies has become a field for mediocrity, triviality, and politically correct orthodoxy—and often all three.
Professors wonder why the humanities are withering on the vine? It’s because students and parents have had enough of this. They want their money’s worth, and not scholars’ esoteric fetishes.