Sunday, 13 March 2011

Work? Part Four of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

File:Die Gartenlaube (1878) 383.jpg
Voltaire as a guest of Frederick the Great, Die Gartenlaube (Leipzig: Ernst Keil's Nachfolger, 1878), p. 383
 [Public Domain Image]
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you Part Four, below, of David McCallam's eloquent and thought-provoking Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759).

The 'Introduction', 'Possible Worlds,' and 'Ethos' have already appeared. The last two instalments of the Manifesto -- 'Equality' and 'Autonomy' -- will be published in the next two days.


John Sutherland notes that if you are paying up to £50,000 for an undergraduate course, ‘you don’t want a good education, you want a good degree. The two are not identical’. In this way fees will not ‘drive up quality’, as market logic maintains, but they will certainly drive up grades. Again, the two are not identical. The endgame is a sort of educational stagflation where real intellectual growth flat-lines while the grade point average soars. Yet this makes sense for the fee-paying customer who demands product, but doesn’t give a damn for the processes of production. Degrees become commodities, goods divested of all origin or end, to be indefinitely exchanged against other commodities and services. And the students will not be to blame, for why should they read till midnight, write till dawn, cogitate, debate, disagree, query, chat, cite, and learn when their money’s down (albeit in exorbitant third-party loans) to do the work for them?

Work. This is the nub of the question. For the common perception is that students don’t do ‘work’ at university, they ‘study’. (And study at university is itself often a stark departure from a school system that betrays its roots in the nineteenth-century mills and manufactures). So work at university, especially in the arts and humanities, is not at all recognizable as work. It clearly isn’t manual labour, it doesn’t produce material goods like a factory, it doesn’t generate profits like a company, and it doesn’t offer a service to customers. And yet nothing could be more productive. The arts seminar affords a very different order of productivity to those familiarly deployed by the market or indeed the state; for its primary mode of production is not economic but dialogic. It produces above all meanings, interpretations, theories, propositions, anecdotes, stories, chat, dissent, wit and questions. It is not utilitarian but value-based, that is, it is less concerned with quantities than with qualities. It can’t be calculated in terms of labour, since it is the fruit of unforeseeable elaborations. When text and class meet, what they produce is inimical to econometric measurement. And as such it is both an enigma and a threat to the prevailing socio-economic orders of work and production.

This last point was strikingly brought home in France in 2006 when the neo-liberal presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, sneeringly dismissed the humanities education required of civil servants as the insistence of ‘a sadist or an imbecile’. Why would, he asked, you ever want to know what the ticket clerk thought of La Princesse de Clèves (a brilliant, subtle seventeenth-century novel by Mme de Lafayette)? Or course, Sarkozy never stopped to consider what La Princesse de Clèves might ask of the ticket clerk… And the current British government’s concerted attack on the humanities is founded either on a similarly philistine arrogance or, more chillingly, an astute ideological demolition of a radically alternative model to their competition theory and market mantra. For the productivist and literal worldview championed by Sarkozy, and to a lesser extent his British counterparts, is challenged by all that is playful and literate in the arts classroom. 

The reason for this lies in its very means of production: language not labour. In generating discourse, that is, language at work, each of us contributes to discursive production to a unpredictably fluctuating degree, but none of us ever owns, appropriates or expropriates it completely or indefinitely. Discourse makes sense only insofar as it is shared, constituted by a given language community, as a given language community, for a given language community. It is the original ‘common wealth’, and as such, it manifestly fails to fit the capitalist mould. It is similarly anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian. It often just needs its users to wake up to their share in its collective exercise. And, oddly enough, it is precisely by taking part in this common enrichment via language that each of us simultaneously acquires the means to define ourselves more clearly, to deepen or enrich our own sense of self and gain in discursive autonomy. Giving ourselves over to this collective turns out to be the best way to affirm our individuality. If nothing else, this is the work of the university seminar, of the arts and humanities classroom.

This discursive model of production is not without similarities to Candide’s garden. His journey over, Candide settles to share-cropping, effectively setting up a market-garden cooperative in which, as the text states, ‘each began to exercise his or her talents’ and ‘no-one refused to work’. Beyond the rather sexist division of labour in the commune (the women cook, sew and clean), what is perhaps most striking is the persisting presence of Dr Pangloss in this working community. Stubbornly purveying his obsolete Optimism, what possible use could he be there? And yet this is precisely his purpose, it seems. His lack of value or use in the collective serves to valorize further the others’ labours. Philosophically, his very existence in the group also ensures that Candide’s garden is not run on purely utilitarian grounds. As in the arts seminar, the apparently useless has significant use – and may even by its negative qualities come paradoxically to represent the greatest value of all. In the case of Pangloss, this means learning for learning’s sake, talking for talking’s sake, which yet intimates how valuable learning or talking is when set to work, as useless gold constitutes the value-index of other more practical, worked metals.

But Pangloss’s very pigheaded cleaving to his philosophical system is also a reminder of how far the others have travelled philosophically, Candide especially. And to do so, they have undertaken, experienced or witnessed a huge range of works or labours. René Pomeau estimates that there are around 137 instances of artisanal or professional activity in the tale; at least 15 different forms of general employment figure there, including teachers, doctors, prostitutes, clerics, soldiers, merchants, servants and financiers. 

Having said that, Candide is never among the more brilliant of them. He is trained as a soldier, yet hides in battle (then kills random civilians); as a merchant, he is consistently defrauded of his goods or wealth. And as the naïve apprentice metaphysician to Pangloss, he fails to hold true to any abstract philosophical system in the face of real-world experiences. Yet in the course of his travels he does excel at one thing: conversation. This is the most successful and explicit form of production in the text. And tellingly, it is what Candide, the Old Woman, Martin and others ship across oceans as their produce of choice. And as produce that is constantly in the process of being publicly produced, revised and refined, this discourse contrasts starkly with those other products freighted across the ocean which seem to want to deny the labour that brought them into being: the gold washed of its miners’ blood and sweat, and especially the sugar cleaned and bleached of the slaves’ torment, torture and pain. Yet the mutilated black slave in Surinam spells this deception out to Candide and Cacambo; his amputated hand, his  severed leg, his chains are, as he puts it, the ‘price of eating sugar in Europe’. Yet unlike sugar and gold (today we might say – trainers and microchips), Candide’s conversation successfully resists inhuman commodification.

Another example of pitiless exploitation in the text is potentially even more interesting for twenty-first-century readers. At least as I interpret it. When the boat carrying Candide, Pangloss and their employer, the good Dutch Anabaptist, Jacques, cruises into Lisbon harbour, it is suddenly ripped apart by flash-storms generated by the devastating earthquake that famously razed the city to the ground on 1 November 1755, claiming over 10,000 lives by tremors, tsunami and fires. In the shipwreck, Jacques saves a sailor but drowns in the process. Now this sailor turns out to be a nasty piece of work. Thus Pangloss’s providentialism is flagrantly disproved: the virtuous Jacques is drowned, the vicious sailor rescued. Washed ashore along with Candide and Pangloss, the sailor looks around, whistles and says: ‘There’s something to be had here’. Then he sets about robbing the mangled victims of the quake, before carousing and whoring in the rubble with his spoils. 

Though Pangloss protests that the sailor isn’t showing much respect for the forces of Providence that saved him, the good doctor’s Optimism is ultimately an apology for the sailor’s behaviour. For, as Voltaire had remarked bitingly in his earlier ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’, the Optimist justifies the violent but short-lived ‘evil’ of the quake via its subsequent longer-terms effects for ‘good’: heirs suddenly come into unexpected fortunes; masons, carpenters, etc. grow rich rebuilding the city; as in Candide the sailor takes money from the maimed and dying who no longer have any use for it, and reinvests it in the local entertainment industries. From partial evil emerges universal good. This is, of course, Optimism savagely mocked and rubbished.

But I would like to offer another interpretation of the sailor’s action and the Optimist’s apology for it. It strikes me that what Voltaire is describing in the ruins of Lisbon is basically eighteenth-century disaster capitalism. As Naomi Klein describes it, this is when disasters are treated as ‘exciting market opportunities’, and natural catastrophes facilitate ‘orchestrated raids’ on the public sphere. In this much the avaricious sailor in Lisbon is an Enlightenment avatar of the free-marketeers buying up the public housing, hospital and schools in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, or the giant tourist companies snapping up the fishing beaches in Sri Lanka once the Boxing Day tsunami had conveniently wiped them clean of their fishing communities. (Increasing evidence suggests that the same processes are at work in earthquake-devastated Haiti). 

Pangloss is then an eighteenth-century Milton Friedman, each with his ‘shock doctrine’ (quite literally in the case of Candide’s quake) legitimating the swift and irreversible appropriation of goods and services before the crisis-racked society can react. The only real difference is that Pangloss is not working with the same distinction between public and private as Friedman is, instead Pangloss’s distinction is between the universal and the particular. But the best of all possible worlds and the freest of all possible markets share the same providentialism – that theirs is the natural order, and it couldn’t possibly be otherwise. The result is forms of philosophical speculation and financial speculation which also share a blithe indifference to their human costs.

Of course, you may object that this is a wildly anachronistic reading of Chapter Five of Candide. And you’d be right. But I would refer your objection to the community of fellow readers, to the jury, so to speak, of my peers in the arts and humanities class. Since, as Stanley Fish has convincingly shown, it is the reader who constructs the text, the reader who shapes its meanings. Yet these subjective, imaginative projections onto the text and refracted, suggestive echoes received from it are not solely the reader’s invention. The reader himself or herself is at the same time a conductor of the prevailing interpretations of the class; he or she is an active member of an interpretive community. And that interpretive community underwrites the acceptability or unacceptability of the reader’s interpretations. They are not true or false, right or wrong, in any definitive, ahistorical sense. They are precisely the product, the work of a given interpretation at a given moment in a given community of readers. And the strength of the arts and humanities seminar is that it is the most pioneering, unconstrained of interpretive communities, given over entirely to the practice of interpreting.

So we must not retrench behind the received wisdoms of a conservative literary, cultural or social history; and if a student ventures an anachronism or an anecdote we should actively embrace it and pursue it. For as Candide shows (manifest in the very name of its hero), the most ingenuous interpretations can often be the most ingenious. Literature, as Ezra Pound famously declared, ‘is news that stays news’; but it only does so by offering up to successive generations of readers an infinitely renewable number of interpretations. It only stays news by being anachronistic, by affording vitally suggestive, powerfully imaginative discrepancies of meaning across time and space. And it is precisely in this cultural-historical interval that meaning is created, that sense is made. (And what goes for literature is equally true of, say, history or philosophy). 

A text only exists insofar as it continues to ‘speak’ to us, and it ‘speaks’ to us only via the actual act of reading, and overwhelmingly in relation to our shifting, everyday concerns. Anachronisms, such as my earlier reading of Chapter Five of Candide are, then, productive, not prohibitive, of meaning. Again, this is a little recognized, highly valuable form of work. Historically, conventionally, we might still refer to Candide as the work of François-Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire. But it’s actually our work, the fruit of our interpretations. It actually makes more sense not to think it as part of the Collected Works of Voltaire, but as part of the collective work called ‘Voltaire’ – the author being nothing other than convenient shorthand for the site of our multiple, unpredictable, anachronistic readings.
From all of which we draw the following manifesto principle:

Article 3°

Publicly funding the arts and humanities recognizes that all our collective activities are grounded in just that: col-lectio, a shared reading or interpretation. The reader is then a viable alternative model of the worker, and the arts seminar a vital alternative mode of production.

Further reading:
  • Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto, 2007)
  • Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge MA., 1980)

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