THE ART OF UNVALUING
By Madison Enos
In the hours before sunrise on the morning of November 9th, I woke up to victorious screams outside my dorm room window. They were the voices of men, bellowing from above and amplified by the empty quad, taking up too much space. They shouted the same name over and over until their voices turned harsh, as heavy and militant as the strike of a drum. They had no trouble being heard, but I had trouble listening.
Trump, they told me. I kept my eyes closed.
On the wake of the election of Donald Trump, many Americans, including myself, were forced to face the fact that an entire population of voters aligned themselves with a candidate who was widely considered to be inexperienced at best and dangerous at worst. For some, the support of Trump by white men and women without a college degree demonstrated the prevalence of deep-rooted and growing anti-intellectualism in the United States. However, the demographic of Trump’s followers is far more complex; the men on Duke University’s campus cheering on the morning of Trump’s win revealed how his rhetoric has permeated through society to the elite scholars of higher education. The seeming duality of Trump’s appeal, drawing support from both critics and members of intellectual communities, calls into question what types of knowledge are mutually valued between the two. Catherine Liu, author of the book American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique, argues that the changing mission of universities has made practical knowledge paramount, so much so that it’s reasonable to question whether members of higher institutions can be deemed “intellectual” at all. “We don’t educate people anymore,” Lui laments. “We train them to get jobs.”
“We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.” – Catherine Lui
And in many ways, it can seem that way. As middle-class Americans struggle to make ends meet, college graduates are bombarded with the idea that unemployment and failure are one in the same. In response to these fears, higher education has become a pre-professional project of self-development where the road to practical success is through science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The shift of higher education towards job preparation has made intellectual virtues synonymous with virtues of high-earning jobs. In the eyes of professionalism, the humanities are rendered soft, flighty, and impractical. Here lies the foundation for the widely-accepted hierarchy of knowledge, where we assume the most intelligent people are bound to be the doctors and engineers of future America. But when we think of knowledge in terms of value, measured by practicality and financial success, something goes missing.
In Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory, Barbara Hernstein Smith, a professor of Comparative Literature and English at Duke University, rejects the idea that objective value can be placed through critique, arguing that value is neither intrinsic nor subjective, but rather a response to constantly changing social and economic factors. The contingency of value on economic systems is reflected through the language we use to describe the things that stir and excite some curiosity inside—we can have an interest in, an investment in, an appreciation of—until that language of economic value becomes inescapable, born into the way we talk about enjoyment. At the university level, the innate conflation of personal and economic value affects the way people approach intellectualism and, in turn, the intellectual community.
The intellectual community is supposed to be a space where free exchange of ideas is encouraged, where academic exploration takes place in and outside of the classroom, where “study” is not confined to the pages of a book, but expanded to the experience of living and learning among answer-seekers. However, when the American university is symbiotic with pre-professionalism, things like enjoyment, passion, emotion, and love are forgotten in the social approach to academic study. The intellectual community of higher institutions becomes something vague and imagined, perhaps based more on the sharing of space and time than on the exchange of ideas towards mutual enlightenment. To be in community becomes defined by proximity, and even such special inclusion faces barriers that are written into the university system. Broken down into categories, sectioned into schools and social groups, separated by white classroom walls and closed office doors, the University is a space of stratification.
If the intellectual community where time is devoted to pursuing passion for passion sake is only an imagined reality, wholly at odds with the inherent structure of the university system, then the culture of anti-intellectualism can be explained. Amid the dialogues defending the humanities, there is a strong history of people trying to restore a sense of “value” in the humanities, to claim that humanities majors outperform their science counterparts monetarily in the long run, that they teach skills that are useful across disciplines, that they may even have some real practicality in the professional world. But if the problem with the system is that it places importance only on real-world “value” and “usefulness,” defined by the quantitative and rooted in financial payoff, restoring value is trying to enter back into the hierarchical system that anti-intellectualism thrives off of. The way towards enlightened intellectual community can only be formed under a new system. Perhaps the way forward is to abandon what value has come to mean altogether, re-imagining what makes academic endeavors worthwhile.
“But surely…one cannot say that there is no space in the university itself? Surely there is some space here for a theory, a conference, a book, a school of thought? Surely the university also makes thought possible?” – The Undercommons, 30
In their book The Undercommons, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten are doing this work of reimagining. If the university is community through space and time, Harvey and Moten call for a subversion of the institution through breaking from the system while still being a part of it, using the university to make space for relations and autonomous education. After concluding that the university does not make thought possible, they claim the way towards enlightened thought is, “to protect this Universitas, whatever its impurities, from professionalization in the university” (Undercommons 30). For Harney and Moten, a hierarchy of identity and thought stems from the fact that the system was always broken, always built to keep some out, always highlighting some voices over others. Only in a new space can thought be possible. In introducing the book, Jack Halberstam, a professor of Gender Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, writes, “We refuse to ask for recognition and instead we want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls” (Undercommons 6). In the Undercommons, intellectualism is about study, and study is about relationships; value is placed on intellectual exploration through philosophic discussion and seeking out questions without needing to find answers or have anything to show for it.
It is the conception of being in community as an effort to “find each other” that offers insight to the path forward. An intellectual community must become a different kind of space; not the physical space of an institution, but a personal and emotional and spiritual space unbounded by the rules and measures of the university. These personal and emotional spaces must recognize the importance of the individual in constructing an understanding of the world, where intellect is only one part of a whole. Passion, feeling, interests, sentiments, and sensations must become part of the intellectual for some sort of vertical movement to occur. Yet, it is the space for the spiritual, for the intangible, inexplicable, and unquantifiable humanness unrelated to religion or belief, that moves us towards the collective. Together, intellectual community must work, in some way, towards a greater understanding of the shared human condition, of love and of empathy, as it works to feel connection with that elusive thing some call “the soul.”
Here is where, outside of the institution, the humanities can be revolutionary. However, the intellectual community must not exist in opposition to the institution of which it is a part; rather, it must work with the reality of the institution to contextualize, to historicize, to look wider and deeper, and to question the orders that have come to be seen as “natural.” The humanities alone can make connections through all disciplines. Reading the past with the present can transcend time. The act of writing can subvert the established orders that have historically marginalized and trivialized the undervalued and decidedly un-valuable. When intellectual writing has historically been a space only some are allowed to inhabit, writing for no purpose other than personal interest becomes something both natural and radical. Rather than being of the university, intellectual community must be self-selected through the university, using those with real intellectual curiosity to engage in a place where mental exchange is done for no purpose other than to search through the spirit. Intellectual community is therefore perhaps improperly named, as it must work to bind the intellect to the rest of what makes us “human:” to the spirit, to empathy, to collective, and to a history of self-enlightenment that cannot be contained by space or time.
TO TRANSCEND THE HIERARCHICAL SYSTEMS OF USEFULNESS THAT HAVE DEEMPHASIZED THE WHOLE HUMAN AND THE OFTEN INEXPLICABLE NATURE OF HUMANITY, WE MUST LEARN TO UNVALUE.
In his essay “The Critic as Artist,” poet, essayist, and novelist Oscar Wilde reflects upon the importance of doing nothing, defending uselessness as a radical thing, where aesthetic should serve itself and nothing else. Wilde believes that there is a difference between invention and significance, where criticism is able to reveal and intensify beauty in art, so that art is of most use to the world when it is of least use. While Wilde is undoing the historical hierarchy of the creative and the critical, he is showing the critical to be the work of the conscious and the soul. Originally published under the title “The True Function and Value of Criticism,” Wilde challenges the traditional values placed on producing and producing thought, summarized by the subtitle “With some remarks on the importance of doing nothing.” Perhaps the way to learn to unvalue, then, is to look back at the way the world was conceived prior to the construction of value we know today. In studying the humanities, we study ourselves and all those who came before us, transcending time and space through the critique of art, literature, and history. We do the work of the conscious and the soul.
When the intellect is not devoid of the spirit, when the search for purpose is not stunted by practicality, and when that purpose is allowed to become nonlinear, we see beyond the constricted bounds of the higher institution. It is only through the humanities that such intellectual work can be done—work that combines the spiritual and the intellectual, the body and the mind. In a redefined intellectual community, empathy and the human condition of love are not unrealistic or impractical endeavors, and to do something simply out of love, in a way that the established order would define as useless, becomes a radical thing. When the intellectual can embrace the necessary components of a thriving community—those immaterial things that are innate to the quality of the human soul: empathy, passion, and radical love—communal work of the intellect and the spirit can begin.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, 2013. Web.
Liu, Catherine. American Idyll: Academic Antielitism As Cultural Critique. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2011. Internet resource.
Smith, Barbara H. Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Critical Theory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1988. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. The Critic as Artist. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: Norton, 1974. Print.
Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2015. Print.