Thursday, September 27, 2007

My tireless quest to promote the humanities

In my tireless quest to promote the humanities to my students, I seized this opportunity to speak more extensively about rhetoric and the importance of rhetoric, so that I might seduce them to take a greater interest in philosophy, literature, english, history, and the social sciences. This time around I chose to appeal to their avarice, their desire to be successful and fabulously wealthy, rather than the high ideals surrounding the tradition of the liberal arts. This is, after all, the wealthiest county in the state, and my students seem profoundly cynical of high falutin ethical ideals, seeing the world itself as a dark and cynical place, a battleground of competing interests, where they have to fight for their own advantage and piece of the pie, rather than advance idealistic causes. Moreover, I consistently get the impression that my students resent being in classes such as mine (though they generally seem to enjoy the class), seeing classes such as philosophy and english as bullshit requirements they have to fill to get their degrees, and outside their real classes pertaining to business or whatever profession they will enter.
Thus, in a move that was not without guilt, I declared that the most lucrative jobs in the world are jobs in rhetoric. I say I adopted this rhetorical strategy with a certain amount of guilt and hesitation, for in arguing in this way I was giving credence to a set of values central to capitalism and treating those values as the telos defining the value of all other things. Yet when speaking before an audience, it is necessary to work with the ethos of that audience and work with the potentials that ethos renders available. As Rumsfeld would say, “you go to speak with the ethos you’re given, not the ethos you would like.” In appealing to avarice and a particular set of values common to this cultural milieu, the hope is then that something very different might occur, and that the student that begins to pursue the study of the various humanities, hoping to gain the rhetorical skills to become fabulously wealthy will, in measures, be seduced to a very different set of values no longer shackled to the telos of capital as the measure of all things. That is, perhaps, in the becoming-capital of the humanities, a becoming-humanities of capital might also take place, allowing a line of flight from a particular system of values. Or this, at least, is how I attempt to mitigate my shame.
Drawing a distinction between the world of Survivorman and our world, I proceeded to distinguish between those tools and weapons (again the value system of capital) that are useful in particular jungle and those that are useful in Survivorman’s jungle. For those who haven’t seen it, Survivorman is a reality survival show where the host, Les Stroud, is dropped for a week in exotic and remote places such as the Amazon rain forests, remote regions of Alaska, the Antarctic, etc., and has to make his own way with a very limited repitoire of odd tools (they’re different every time), as if he had fallen into these situations as a result of an emergency without preparing for them. He does all of his own filming without the benefit of a crew, and spends the week trying to find food, build shelter, etc. Often things do not go very well, and he ends up very hungry, without sufficient water or shelter. Over the last couple of seasons he seems to have aged from these experiences.
The skills Stroud possesses are largely useless in our world. For the most part, many of us have our basic needs met– even if not exactly in the way we would like –and are not faced with serious questions of how to make fire, find food and water, build shelter, etc. Ours is a world of communications, images, symbols, sound-bites, speech. Regardless of what one pursues later in life, these are the tools with which one will be working. If rhetoric is desirable as a skill, then this is because you can use it to get people to do shit and because you can critically unpack those rhetorical strategies that are attempting to get you to do shit (often against your own self-interest or aims). If this were not the case, lawyers, advertisers, marketing men, televangelists, political consultants, and so on would not be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively billions of dollars, for their skills. If rhetoric did not work– whether visual or in speech –it wouldn’t be such a sought after skill in employees by those who wish to advance their ambitions. Just think of the hundreds of thousands of dollars Frank Luntz has been paid for his political consulting… For simply coming up with a few well turned phrases. And which disciplines will best serve students in developing these skills, if not the humanities and the social sciences, where one works intensively for years, learning how to read, write, and think creatively. Certainly this isn’t the case with business degrees, which arguably shouldn’t be offered by universities at all. Again, I hate myself for this line of argument.
This discussion of rhetoric bled into an analysis of rhetoric as it is deployed in various television commercials such as the Geico caveman commercials, commercials for various erectile disfunction pills such as Cialis (gotta wake the students up), car commericals, the swiffer sweeper, and the iPhone. The interesting feature of most commercials is that the techniques used to advertise them seldom has much, if anything, to do with the product at all. Rather, commercials instead sell fantasies… Usually fantasies that either appeal to our narcissism or self-love (the caveman commercials that implicitly appeal to our superiority to neanderthals), sexual desires (the swiffer sweeper where the women are always breaking up with someone for someone else who fulfills them more completely), desires for mastery and control, where we’re freed from the ordinary constraints of our bodies and lives (the Hummer commercials where we are able to conquer the world and go anywhere), or our desires for a better world where we’re freed from the drudgery of work and human ugliness (many car commercials that take place on an empty, scenic road– implicitly referring to the irritations caused by other human beings –and the whimsical, annoying, iPhone commercials that evoke a whole counter-cultural politics where technology doesn’t dominate us, but rather improves our lives, and where we get the sense of people who are kind and nice to one another, without any of the ordinary ugliness that characterizes so many anonymous interpersonal relations).

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