What is the Humanities?

First effort. Working draft.

The Humanities is the interdisciplinary study of history, philosophy, art and the cultural productions of disparate human communities. Because of its capaciousness this field of inquiry tends to privilege holistic thinking: making connections across historical periods, cultural traditions and geographical spaces.

In a single Humanities course, for instance, students might study Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Oubrerie’s Aya, and and Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, moving from an early modern English drama to a post-colonial Ivorian graphic novel to a mid-20th century film about Japanese juvenile delinquents. Such a diversity of texts will likely fall under a larger theme (in this case Youth as a Cultural Construct).

The purpose of this kind of curriculum includes not only mastering specific texts and gaining knowledge about their socio-historical contexts, but developing analytical and interpretive skills which can be applied in any meaningful encounter with the products and practices of human culture. So, for example, an interpretation of Cruel Story of Youth necessarily demands some familiarity with post-war Japanese Cinema and the social conditions which shaped it as well as the formal techniques of film-making. In addition, theoretical concepts drawn from Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, Semiotics, etc. provide a framework for forming judgements and clarifying meaning.

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It was a bruising semester, probably the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. Some students disappeared for weeks. Others made no discernible effort to prepare for classes, and sat in the back of the room listlessly scrolling their phones. One came to every meeting and spent most of the time complaining loudly to anyone who would listen that the course requirements were ridiculous, even unjust. He also told me he googled the assigned novels rather than read them. (And still, incredibly, he was shocked to receive less than full credit for the work he submitted.)

Many arrived late. Some refused to buy the required books. Virtually none were inclined to remember much of anything from one class to the next. As weeks passed, the collective antipathy became palpable. A passive-aggressive resentment at being asked to read lapsed into putty-eyed indifference punctuated by sporadic flickers of contempt. We have become something like galley slaves on a foundering ship, I thought at one point, taking on water yet too dispirited to swim.

Every other faculty member I spoke with agreed that Spring was intolerable. One suggested that even by the standards of the post-iPhone era– that watershed moment when the internet’s ubiquity was perfected, thus gutting the attention spans of the world– this semester was a bust. I know teachers who have given up on asking their students to complete long form texts. The most they can handle, a colleague remarked, are excerpts, possibly poems, though reading comprehension levels seem to have declined to such a degree that any effort to move beyond the most literal, superficial level of meaning poses a challenge. His curriculum consists primarily of visual art now.

I’ve always had students in my courses who didn’t like the material and frankly didn’t like me. That’s just how it goes. But I can honestly say I’ve never before witnessed an alienation this implacable. It seems that an entire cohort of students is on the brink. Their intellectual stamina has been vaporized by endless shock waves of digital stimulus. They have been carefully instructed in regimes of pop psychological self-care yet are confronted by imploding conditions no institution appears able or even willing to arrest. They have been locked into habits of mind dictated by algorithms the only purpose of which is to accumulate likes and cash. Shackled to their benches, their chains are a source of cold comfort.

Recommended

Here’s a list of some of the books and films I read and watched this semester when I could have been doing other things:

Prose:

Among the Thugs

A vivid ethnography of English football hooligans.

The Catastrophist

A political thriller by Ronan Bennett set in decolonizing Congo.

The Murders that Made Us

Tawdry tales of criminal San Francisco from the Bear Republic to the present.

This is the Beat Generation: New York, Paris, San Francisco

There are some remarkable details and anecdotes about the Beats in this study.

The End of the Golden Gate

A collection of essays by those who have loved and left SF.

Exploits and Adventures of Brigadier Gerard

These stories about a young, arrogant cavalier in Napoleon’s army are easily equal to Conan Doyle’s best tales of Sherlock Holmes.

Harlot’s Ghost

Mailer’s mature yet romantic history of the CIA.

A Year of Gold and Mud

Letters from the first year of the Gold Rush.

Film:

The Carpetbaggers

Based on the novel by Harold Robbins. Loaded with booze, sex, ambition and avarice.

Let’s Get Lost

A gauzy, black and white account of Chet Baker told by those who loved him and those he betrayed (usually the same people).

The Man Who Haunted Himself

Roger Moore’s best film is a story of dopplegangers and corporate greed.

Basic Instinct 2

Elizabeth Trammel (Sharon Stone) goes on the road to Europe where– you can bet– her perverse appetites and charisma are unleashed.

The Card Counter

Paul Schrader’s noir love letter to poker takes up the psychological aftermath of US sanctioned torture during the invasion of Iraq.

Busting

A prime 70s cop drama with Elliot Gould and Robert Blake.

The Northman

There is not a shred of irony in this epic rendition of the Viking eddas.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street

Despite its title this occasionally bizarre Code-era horror film by Joseph H. Lewis expends most of its energies on an island in the Pacific populated by ethnocentrically rendered “natives”.

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Moki’s shadow comes from Mabanckou’s post-colonial novel Blue White Red and refers to Massala-Massala, a young man from Congo-Brazzaville who hopes to emigrate to Paris in order to become a sapuer. A shadow motif is present throughout the text and it can be read as a doubling gesture which complicates the issue of identity as it is experienced by young African migrants who live in a globalized world where the aftereffects of colonialism linger. Notably, a shadow is an insubstantial and thus inferior twin of the object which casts it. In this scenario, Moki is the object, someone who has ‘weight’ and occupies space, qualities M-M lacks. The fact that M-M also possesses additional false identities– Marcel, Georges– further undercuts his basic social being. Who is M-M really? What does it mean to be an African from the post-colony?

An obvious link between texts here would be the figure of Kurtz from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The Kurtz of Brussels, adored by his naive fiancee, the Intended, represents just one part of his schismatic identity. The Kurtz in Congo is a feverish and brutal colonizer, a dark twin symbolizing the inherent barbarism of Europes ‘civilizing mission.’ In this vein we could also consider Selver and Davidson from The Word for World is Forest as differing aspects of colonization. One seeks to destroy and consume while the other fights defensively to preserve Athshea.

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  1. Spontaneous prose is the method of composition Kerouac elucidates in his short manifesto “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” It indicates a heavy emphasis on spontaneity and improvisation– 2 key characteristics of Bop– and tends to value language for its subjective and musical properties. The Subterraneans is a good example of such prose: passages in that novella often run on for pages and feature sudden pivots and digressions. The purpose of this method is to peel away the confining conventions of rational, predictable writing in favor of rhythm and sound in order to express the truth of our situated, partial perceptions of reality.

8. Heavenly Lane is where Mardou, Leo’s lover in The Subterraneans, lives. The name is significant b/c it implies that Mardou is another “angel”– a beatific and modern figure whose style and sensibilities elevate her above the conformist mass who remain caught in the web of official culture, with its deadening logic and shallow, consumerist dreams. Mardou is Beat– stripped to the basics, often animated by madness, “the child of Bop”– and in these senses she represents something transcendent. Those qualities also stem from her status as African-American. Linked to a marginalized community, she retains something rooted and authentic– or so Leo believes.

3. Mise-en-scène is a film term taken from Villarejo’s short chapter on film form. It encompasses any visual element within the frame such as setting (props, decor), lighting, costume, makeup, and figure behavior. The m-e-s of Robert Frank’s ‘jazz film’ Pull My Daisy offers us a Beat world. A low-rent apartment scattered with Milo’s “tortured socks” and the homely, dilapidated accoutrements of the kitchen form the backdrop of Kerouac’s drama about a visit by the Bishop. Ginsberg (The Subterranean’s Adam Moored), Corso (Yuri Gligoric), and. others– their frantic playfulness and naughty behavior– further elaborate the fundamental beatitude (Beatness) of this world.

7. “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” This line comes from Ginsberg’s poem “America.” It is the speaker’s final statement ( a promise or a threat?)– a very bold one as it amounts to a confession of the poet’s sexuality in an era of crushing heteronormativity. The poem itself constitutes a thorough critique of Cold War culture. Using a sprawling, free-form line and non-standard language “America” points out the absurdity and violence of the official culture of the US, its inability to understand utopian hopes, and its harsh efforts to bend people to its “insane demands.” Personal, subjective beliefs and attitudes thus become part of an anti-conformist arsenal. Asserting his gay identity, the speaker undertakes a cultural-political act. All of this can with profit be compared with the “naked,” often embarrassing confessional stance of Kerouac’s novel. Both texts– and the Beat movement in general– argue that the truth can be revealed only by manifesting the properties and vagaries of Individual Mind.

2. Pull My Daisy is a short film by photographer Robert Frank (The Americans) narrated by Jack Kerouac and ‘starring’ Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and David Amram (who also created the film’s score [extra-diegetic sound]). The title, taken from an early poem by Ginsberg, is an example of the Beats’ ‘free’ use of language as championed by Kerouac in his manifesto The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. It also closely resembles the irony and nonsense that can be found in Ginsberg’s poem “America”. One of the more salient aspects of PMD is the contentious relationship between Milo and his wife Evelyn. As Milo’s friends clamor downstairs, excited to embark on a boys-only evening of pleasures, Evelyn and Milo argue about the Bishop’s disastrous visit. His desires are inconsistent with hers– a major feature of Leo and Mardou’s fated love affair.

5. to blow. The term can be found in Pull My Daisy, The Subterraneans, Sterrit’s short chapter, and Essentials of Spontaneous Prose. Briefly, blowing is closely associated with Jazz performance, particularly an improvised solo. When the quasi-Beat figure in DOA yells “Blow up a storm, Fisherman” he is encouraging the musician to take his musical statement as far as it will possibly go– in other words to express himself (his thought, his sentiment) as completely as he can. This is what Kerouac meant when he told would-be writrs to “blow! now! your way is your way!” To blow is to give voice to individual consciousness and perception. This conceit is portrayed in a more homely and diminutive way when Kerouac, narrating PMD, tells little Pablo to “blow boy blow”. The Beat attitude or stance, then, values self-expression, oddly enough, as an avenue to community and self-transcendence.