False consciousness in the humanities

The state of split consciousness in the humanities is illustrated by a semi-comedic animated video turned sensation, called “So you want to get a PhD in the Humanities.” It was released on YouTube in October 2010, and would go on to more than  740,000 views, which is quite a success for an academic milieu that only has about 1.48 million teaching staff altogether. In my own circles, the video is fairly well known, and it seems to have spread rapidly across online social networks, even spawning a number of spinoffs.

youtube college professor clip 1 youtube college professor student view

In cartoon fashion, with computer-generated, half-robotic voices, the video shows what happens when a young woman student comes to her professor’s office. She is there to ask for a letter of recommendation to graduate school in English literature, and the professor tries to talk her out of it, citing a host of practical and experiential reasons why it is “not a good idea” to go to graduate school. But the professor discovers at each turn that the student is incapable of hearing her objections. Rather than reconsidering her decision, the student takes every opportunity to voice her ardent desire for a clichéd “life of the mind.”

Professor: So you said you want to meet with me today.
Student: Yes. I am going to grad school in English.
Professor: No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.
Student: Yes. I am going to be a college professor.
Professor: Do you see where I am teaching? We’re in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska. Do you want to move to the middle of nowhere to teach?
Student: I got an A on my Hamlet paper. I have brilliant thoughts about the theme of death in literature.
Professor: In all of literature? What field do you intend to specialize in?
Student: All of it. I’m going to be a college professor. I’m going to write smart things about death in literature.
Professor: Do you know how many admissions committees are going to laugh at your application?

We begin with a familiar enough institutional situation. The student has a plan for her academic future, for which she needs her professor’s help. The professor dislikes the plan, and tries to switch scripts to a different, more advisory encounter, where her superior expert knowledge and her moral authority might trump her student’s wishes. The student, in turn, responds to her professor’s discouragement the only way she can. She does not dispute the facts, since she has no resources for doing so; nor does she dispute the professor’s moral authority, since the very premise of this encounter is that she admires and covets her professor’s elevated role. Instead, when the student’s affirmative “Yes” meets an immediate “No” from above, she responds by gazing steadily back at the professor and flatly contradicting her in turn, standing by her image of an academic future, reiterating her desire. Neither party wants to change her views. They are immediately at a standoff.

An academic viewer of the video is, I suspect, likely to spontaneously see the student as embodying youthful naivety. After all, her beliefs about academia are plainly absurd. Her claim to have “brilliant thoughts about the theme of death in literature,” for instance, only reveals her woeful ignorance of the importance of academic specialization and expertise in graduate study. The professor, by contrast, displays some first-hand knowledge of graduate student life, of things that make admissions committees “laugh at your application.” She comes across as the voice of blunt institutional realism. The pleasure here for young American academics, I suspect, has much to do with getting to see naivety put in its place, laughing at the ridiculousness of the student’s reasoning. Academic viewers get the chance to identify with the seeming voice of knowledge, confirmed in their awareness of all the reasons why academic life is complex and terrible.

It would, however, be deeply inadequate to interpret the video as an encounter between the naive, typical young student and the older, wiser professor. I would argue that in fact the scholarly point of view is not embodied by the character, the representation of the professor, but rather is embedded in the gaze of the viewer, the structure of the situation. Instead of describing a confrontation between two subject, as it may seem to do at first glance, the video stages a conflict that occurs within the subjectivities of today’s academic humanists. Consider the penultimate soliloquy of the video:

Professor: You will have a career where people will constantly demand that you justify to them why you exist, and you will begin to question the nature of your own existence. You will discover that your life has been a complete waste, and that will be confirmed to you when a student like you walks into your office asking you for a recommendation.

It is apparent that neither the professor nor the student has much individuality; they are spokespeople for social types, the everywomen of today’s humanistic disciplines. But what becomes clear as the video progresses is that these two figures are less two separate characters than two distinct moments in a single academic lifecourse. They represent two moments in a shared social destiny that functions through mimesis and overidentification of the young with the old. This structural identity between young and old, I would argue, is made clear poetically by the increasingly ambiguous use of you, which eventually comes to designate both the professor and the student. “You will discover that your life has been a complete waste, and that will be confirmed to you when a student like you walks into your office asking you for a recommendation”: you in this context refers at once to the student in the future, to the professor in the present, and perhaps to the viewer as well, whose split subjectivity is only concealed by momentary overidentification with the character of the professor.

The scene reminds us that recognition and overidentification always work in more than one direction. The work of phantasmatic overidentication is obvious in the case of the student, who comes into the office wanting to become the person she imagines her teacher already is, a person who (in the student’s words) is “going to write smart things,” who “will inspire students to think critically about literature,” who has “potential as a literary scholar.” But what becomes clear from this later speech is that the professor recognizes herself in the student as well, indeed recognizes herself only too clearly, as she despairingly tries to warn the student of the probable existential costs of a hopeless scholarly career, a “complete waste” of a life.

Again, it is inadequate to understand this encounter as a moment of mutual misrecognition between two subjects, because what we have here is not a depiction of two selves meeting, but a structural diagram of academics’ split subjectivity. Consider: the student is not the incarnation of a non-academic come to mount an attack on the professoriate, she is something much more uncanny — a projection of the cruel optimism and attachment buried within the academic self. Her uncanny identity with the professor is precisely the source of the professor’s discomfort. Indeed, one might speculate that part of the attraction of the video, for an academic viewer, is that it allows academics to externalize and objectify their own painful attachment to their degraded profession, and then to experience the vicarious pleasures of disavowal via the professor’s increasingly bitter attacks on the student. Faced with her student’s refusal to listen, the professor eventually resorts to incredulous insults: “I cannot respect you,” “You cannot seriously be this stupid!” When we recall that the professor deeply identifies with her student, we realize that these statements are actually disavowed self-criticism. They amount to exclaiming, “How can I be this stupid?” and “I cannot respect myself!”

This disavowed self-criticism is a symptom of the professor’s internal and external contradictions. She says that academic work is impossible, a “complete waste” with “no health benefits,” “slave labor for the university.” But she herself remains deeply committed to it, being a consummate professional, as we will see confirmed in a moment. This initially seems mysterious, because everything she has to say about academia is negative. Why stick around if she hates it, we might wonder? One might respond that her negativity is merely the product of experience; certainly, as I noted earlier, she has a more materialist, more institutional understanding of academic life than the student does. She notes that “less than half of PhDs get a tenure-track position,” asking “Who in the world will be willing to follow you to Alaska so you can teach at Juneau Community College?” In the final analysis, though, what first seems to be an institutional, materialist perspective actually encodes a phantasmatic and ideological relationship to the milieu.

Professor: Oh my god. Life is not a movie script. Humanities in higher education is under attack. SUNY-Albany just cut their French and Italian programs. The Tea Party may take control of Congress. They believe all college professors are radical Marxists and they are scheming up ways to have us all fired.

It becomes apparent here that the professor’s views of academic life are themselves deeply exasperated and exaggerated, skewed by class anger and a prevailing discourse on professional vulnerability. Her overarching reading of her institutional situation, that “humanities in higher education are under attack,” is itself a totalizing and excessive metanarrative. As we have seen earlier, humanities enrollments have been relatively stable for some time across the United States, and while it is true that a handful of humanities programs have been closed, there has never been any objective danger of “all professors getting fired.” One can get a sense of the generalizing ideology at work by comparing the claim that “humanities in higher education is under attack” (in general) with its supporting evidence: that one university out of 7559 has cut its French and Italian programs. The professor perceives a global menace, but in reality, her disciplinary location would likely involve a much more diverse set of local threats, stabilities, ambiguities, and ongoing institutional work, like the work of advising that we are witnessing.

Indeed, as far as one can judge from the scene, this professor’s job may be bad, but she keeps doing it all the same. The worst risk for her is not getting fired, in the end, but having to confront her own alienation from her work and from her ideals. Not surprisingly, this alienation seems to become palpable for her at the moment of encountering an Other who wants to become her. Her response then exaggerates external menace and hostility, as if to camouflage and rationalize her internal ambivalence about her job. If her professional ambivalence is externalized in one direction onto the student, it is also externalized in another direction onto the institution, as if the situation, not the subject, was what was bad and compromised.

In the last scene of this video, there is a sort of ideological climax:

Professor: …You will discover that your life has been a complete waste, and that will be confirmed to you when a student like you walks into your office asking you for a recommendation.
Student: So will you write me a recommendation?
Professor: Yes. Give me the forms. I will have it for you by Monday.
Student: Thank you. I find you very inspiring.
Professor: Please get the frack out of my office. (She blinks.)

For the character of the professor, this is the ideological moment of the whole encounter, the moment where she can no longer fend off ideological interpellation, where she believes she sees through all the false premises and promises of an academic life, but fulfills her role in academic reproduction anyway. In this moment, her own repressed attachment to the structural optimism that organizes academic careers becomes apparent through the very form of her machinic, compulsive relation to her own praxis, as she reverts to type (though, in this story, she was always already her type). Asked if she will write a recommendation, she finally becomes pragmatic, efficient. “I will have it for you by Monday,” she says. The student then thanks her and calls her inspiring: this looks like a ritual false compliment, but in the last analysis is just an accurate statement of the reality of the student’s fantasy, since structurally, she does find her professor very inspiring. And the coda that follows, where the professor cannot prevent herself from venting her bitterness at the student – “Please get the frack out of my office” – is the moment that confirms the futility of academic self-consciousness. Her curse is an impotent gesture of rebellion that relieves frustration, but changes nothing.

The professor, in sum, inhabits something like the cynical stance that Peter Sloterdijk calls enlightened false consciousness, a state of “[knowing] oneself to be without illusions and yet dragged down by the ‘power of things’ ” (1984:193). The student on the other hand is in just the opposite position: she inhabits ideology wishfully, and she voices a sort of dream logic, where her wish (to become an academic) becomes feasible merely by being pictured. Hers is a logic which is impervious both to rational counter-argument and to emotional appeals, a logic which depends on overidentifying with her idealized image of the professor while ignoring any unwelcome features of this Other. As I suggested earlier, the form of this wishful subjectivity is a logic of sheer repetition, which only knows how to affirm its fantasy, over and over, mechanically.

There is a dialectic here between fantasy and institution; each is the condition of the other. The student’s intolerable affirmativeness is coupled to an insistent instrumentalism. She wants to be a college professor; and for that, she needs her letter of recommendation. And in the end, she will get it. On one level, all that we see here is a standard institutional negotiation about the terms of her instrumental request for a letter. But, as we have seen, the professor tries – and fails – to resist this instrumental request on the grounds of her own reasoned analysis of the situation. On a second level, then, the video illustrates the impotence of intellectual argument and critical knowledge in the face of fantasy; all the intellectual arguments fail, one after the next, to make the fantasy even budge.

Yet there is a telling irony about these fantasies: far from being deeply original, deeply individual inventions, they themselves are sheer institutional products. Just what is the common denominator of the student’s stated passions for “thinking critically about literature,” for “working hard,” for collaborative learning,” for “inspiring students,” for having “potential as a scholar,” for wanting a “life of the mind”? Nothing if not that they are all bits of American liberal arts marketing rhetoric; they are identical to the vague platitudes that humanistic scholars generally produce when asked to give a public rationalization of liberal education. And so in fact we are confronted here with a doubly uncanny image. Not only is the repressed ambivalence of the humanities professor revealed here by the presence of the naive student who wants to become her, but also the deep, sustaining fantasies about the goodness and value of humanistic scholarship turn out to be structurally inauthentic, the internal echoes of our own academic marketing discourse. In short, the student is uncanny because she is someone who appears to truly believe the platitudes about critical thinking, etc., that we put in our mission statements, someone who demonstrates that our fantasies about the fundamental worth of scholarship are fantasies that come from outside.

In the end, like all successful ideological projects, the video works to make the real into the tolerable, to mediate objective social and subjective contradictions by translating them into enjoyable fictions with easy objects for our displaced ambivalence. In order to do this, as I have tried to show, it inadvertently dramatizes our professional repressions of our own ambivalence, our disavowal of our naive and comical optimism about the life of the mind; and it must re-enact many of the dynamics of projection, identification, disavowal, and disgust that are at work in contemporary precarious academic subjectivity. In the end, what one identifies with as a young academic humanist is perhaps the wretched, inescapable impossibility of the situation.

The political moral of this story is quietist: it suggests that there is nothing in the end to do but live through the worst of the absurdities we are offered, continuing to do our jobs after incredulity has set in. It is in this sense a perfect illustration of the fact that today’s “crisis of the humanities” is less a matter of outright disappearance than of progressive alienation, downclassing and internal stratification.

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