U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (12/2/2010)

[Updated: 9:05 am, 12/2]

1 (of 5). Piss Christ Redux: Ignorance of History as Anti-Intellectualism

Some of our Culture Wars history appears to be repeating itself—though in a weird, reverse chronological order. In a move reminiscent of debates over Serrano’s 1989 Piss Christ, protests by Bill Donohue of The Catholic League, with support from new House Speaker John Boehner, caused part of an exhibit to be pulled at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery a few days ago.

The purportedly offensive art, constructed in 1987 by David Wojnarowicz (right, since deceased) and titled Fire in the Belly (video link requires age verification), involves—among other graphic images—a scene where ants crawl over a crucifix. Fire in the Belly was part of an ongoing exhibit titled “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” Donohue designated the video “hate speech” (although I’m unclear whether he found all or just parts objectionable). Here’s the press release where the Gallery explains its action.

At what point in the arts does censorship become anti-intellectualism? What’s the relationship? It seems clear to me that anti-intellectualism is necessary but not sufficient for censorship. As such, other factors can be involved (social norms, moral outrage, etc.). Even so, in this case I’m inclined to think it’s a very important, if not primary, necessary condition. I assert this in line with commentary given two days ago by Blake Gopnik in Washington Post. Gopnik summarized the historically-uninformed nature of Donohue’s opposition:

The irony is that Wojnarowicz’s reading of his piece puts it smack in the middle of the great tradition of using images of Christ to speak about the suffering of all mankind. There is a long, respectable history of showing hideously grisly images of Jesus – 17th-century sculptures in the National Gallery’s recent show of Spanish sacred art could not have been more gory or distressing – and Wojnarowicz’s video is nothing more than a relatively tepid reworking of that imagery, in modern terms.

In my view, this kind of historical ignorance is simply another form of anti-intellectualism (i.e the unreasonable strain). The rest of Gopnik’s commentary is pretty interesting, historically speaking, as well.

2. The Recent History of Publishing in the Academy

Scott McLemee at InsideHigherEd considers changes in the quality and quantity of academic scholarship over the past forty or so years. He opens by referencing a recent fall 2010 issue of The Journal of Electronic Publishing (JEP), but jukes to a consider the 2010 book, The State of Scholarly Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities (edited by Albert N. Greco). The book contains an essay William W. Savage, Jr. that constitutes the heart and soul of McLemee’s piece. Here’s the quote around which McLemee built his article:

In a passage that may seem literally incredible to younger scholars today, [Savage, Jr.] cites a piece of advice by one professor in the early 1970s – an epoch when “faculty who worried about publishing too much, thereby alienating colleagues and damaging their own careers” still wandered the earth. To be safe, this scholar suggested publishing “an article a year and a book every five years.” That would be enough to satisfy the administration, “but not so much as to threaten [your] colleagues unduly.”

Contrast that with the agenda laid out here (which considers publishing and teaching together).

3. Zombies in the Academy

Continuing a theme I started here last year, I offer this CFP for a book project (unrelated to my post) that seeks to “take up the momentum provided by the resurgence of interest in zombie culture to examine the relevance of the zombie trope to discussions of scholarly practice itself. We propose to canvas a range of critical accounts of the contemporary university as an atavistic culture of the undead.” I am very much tempted to send a proposal. It sounds like fun, yes? The proposal due date is Dec. 15, 2010.

Btw-1: Here’s a blog hosted by the Zombies in the Academy folks.
Btw-2: Yes, this is a real CFP. Andrew Whelan, a sociologist, does indeed exist at the University of Wollongong in Australia.]

4. Chinese Logic

Since learning of Mortimer Adler’s (faulty? simplistic? sensible?) arguments, in Truth in Religion (1992), for the irreconcilability of Eastern and Western philosophy (primarily in chapters two and three), I have been passively interested in the history of logic. This recent blog post by Catarina Dutilh Novaes (right) at New APPS indulges my latent questions about this subject. In the post Novaes lays out questions and issues she plans to study on “the roots of deduction” during a five-year project. The central question seems to be “why the axiomatic-deductive method emerged in ancient Greece but not in ancient China”?

5. An Excellent Quote on the Internet, Reading, and Indexing

For the December 2006 edition of Prose Studies, Paul Tankard of the University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand), wrote the following about ‘indexes’—in the context of writing about lists as both literary devices and as signs of certain truths (bolds mine):

In saving the reader the trouble of actually reading, of experiencing in real time the full discursive being of a text, indexes contribute to the “death of the author.” We see this in that huge electronic index which threatens to consume all text, the Internet, where sounds, images, and “grabs” or “bites” of text circulate independently of any author, where searching the indexes is not restricted by the covers of individual books, and where texts flow in and out of each other. However, this is not a new thing. Alphabetically organized anthologies…have always been popular — although perhaps like printed indexes, they are not so much meant to undermine reading as re-reading. (p. 351)

And yes, I am acutely aware of the irony of my quoting this text in this format. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The quote about Christ’s grisly suffering depicted through art is fascinating. I really wonder how much of the frustration isn’t about the National Portrait Gallery giving attention to homosexuality, but they chose to protest this one religious symbol as a potential area of success. It is so depressing to talk to artists who used to at least have a chance at a government grant, but all of that was destroyed under the Bush administration (as was the Department of the Interior–it seems like my dad’s office at the BLM hasn’t hired anyone new in years and years). In my small town growing up the only thing I ever heard about the NEH was how it was supporting immoral art.

    I do like your link to anti-intellectualism in art censorship. They both seem to be wary of what is difficult to understand or not immediately obviously moral (fit into a linear, black and white moral box).

    I think about the indexing problem a lot when I’m writing. Sometimes I need to just look up a quote I remembered reading in a book–so I’ll look up the google books version of a book I actually own. But then sometimes I need to know something more broadly and it is easier to go to google books than the library. Although I do find myself getting over to the library eventually for things that are too broad to understand in snap shots. The internet has fundamentally changed the way we do research. I would never have been able to do the project I did without the digitization of black newspapers–all these fairly obscure women were suddenly obviously important for how often they were mentioned in newspapers. But as always, it’s a question of understanding, and helping students to understand, broader pictures instead of small snapshots.

  2. Lauren,

    Ditto on my small-town, federal-support-of-art experience. The only time the NEH was name was in the context of some far-away liberal bureaucrat endorsing immoral art. And of course “immoral” meant either “I don’t understand it so it’s bad” or “I understand it perfectly; it’s self-evidently bad.”

    Do you think about the “indexing problem,” however, as the death of the author? I hadn’t linked the Internet(s), indexing, and authorship in that way before reading Tankard’s article.

    – TL

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