The view from Andy's Camera Obscura
By Andy King
In the October 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine Terry Eagleton notes that, “Like any other human system, market societies need a skilled and trained workforce in order to survive. Yet because they tend to treat education as a commodity, they also devalue the kind of humanistic culture that makes us responsible citizens. The result is a glut of knowledge and a paucity of wisdom”
These sentiments were also Kenneth Burke’s, who worried that a constantly accelerating science would soon leave us without the intellectual resources to control the genie of technology. In the New Harmony Conference in 1990, Burke expressed the fear that we had passed a point of no return.
“I have to say that Agent has been subordinated to Agency. Agency is now the dominant lever of the pentad. Big business and big Science are in bed together,” said Burke as we all gazed out of the enormous conference room window onto flowery green meadow fringed by Indiana sycamore trees.
Later at a solemn supper, Burke talked more doom and gloom. But this time his target was not “techno-industrial civilization” but the “techno-literary establishment.” For Burke, American intellectuals themselves were the betrayers. The American liberal arts establishment had surrendered without firing a shot.
Burke’s narrative angered his mess mates. It was not the intellectual condescension but the moral condescension that stung like a frozen lash. Burke blamed the humanists for cutting the heart out of humanities. We had taken the advantages of the Humanities and flung them away with a curse. In our quest to imitate the Sciences we embraced the famous metaphor of strapping a poem to a table, etherizing it and then interrogating it savagely, cutting up and labeling its parts. We catalogued imagery, invented the most complex and arcane methodologies, and adopted double-barreled vocabularies that gave our analyses the pseudo-scientific flavor of advertising. We reified the categories of social science, bludgeoning texts with smarmy ideology.
Burke condemned the mechanics of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, what he called “the political tests” of Sydney Hook, and the little wars of literary critics and the “bureaucrats of the composition book industry.” Burke believed our eyes were on our professional dignity as scholars and not on the treasures of great literature.
And thus it was that we neglected all of the strengths of the old humanistic enterprise: embracing the secret drama of the human heart, pursuing visions of the good life and the good community; or listening for the footsteps of God with Dostoevskey. When Burke predicted that the arts and letters would disappear from American education in favor what President Obama recently called “the things that really matter in higher education,” we chided him.
“Old people always think the best things are coming to an end when they face death,” said one of our diners after the meal, “the younger generation is always weak and soft. Arts and Humanities will be there for our great grandchildren.”
Now, twenty years later, we see Burke’s “saving mission of the arts” in peril and as Eagleton has warned: “Our social orders are driven by greed, crippled by a crass utilitarianism and callously indifferent to education in anything but the most bloodless, technocratic sense of the term.” Recently President Obama talked about the important things in education and it was obvious that he was talking about math and science. When he spoke of abandoning the things that don’t matter, it was apparent from the full context of his speech that he meant the humanities.
Burke’s nightmare seemed silly in 1990. With the arts and sciences under savage attack in the universities, his vision was merely premature. The age of Brutalism is dawning. As Burkeans we must become dog-faced soldiers of the arts and humanities; we must put the heart back into education.