Higher Education

The Washington Post on vampires, websites, and the aesthetics/usability of revolution

When the mainstream media gets tired of complaining that colleges are a hot-bed of radical liberalism and that the education we provide doesn't prepare students for the real world, they shift gears and bemoan that our students lack literary taste and strong political views–two things which are apparently linked, though I'm not sure how. In short, as humanities professors, we are criticized for trying to make students think like us (as if we're part of some group think) and then criticized for failing to accomplish that goal.

Obviously these opposing criticisms emerge from different ends of the journalistic spectrum. Ron Charles op-ed piece in the Washington Post is clearly in the latter category. Perhaps you have seen the discussion of this piece on the WPA-listserv. That's where I picked up on it, and I replied there, but I want to go in a different direction here, starting with a line from the end of Charles' piece.

What you see at the next revolution is far more likely to be a

well-designed Web site than a radical novel or a poem. Not to be a
drag, but that's so uncool.

What is at stake here? Is it the media? Web site vs novel/poem? Or is it the adjective? "Well-designed" vs. "radical"?

Charles seems to argue that students ought to be reading literature similar to that read in the 60s. If I put "Howl" up on a website, does it lose its radical nature? You can go here and download a reading of Howl. But I'm thinking the question isn't about the media itself. There's nothing inherently revolutionary about print. If there were, Charles wouldn't be complaining that students were reading books about vampires. It's obviously the content. Interestingly, you can read and listen to Howl today but it's just not the same as doing it in the 60s. Because today it's a piece of history, an aesthetic object, an excellent poem even, but does it inspire radicalism now? Does Uncle Tom's Cabin inspire radicalism now? Does Thomas Paine? How about the Communist Manifesto?

Furthermore, the concern doesn't seem to be about the possibility of revolution in general. Maybe it's just a poorly written sentence, but Charles says here that there will be a "next revolution." If one were a radical, one might imagine that one would not care whether the revolution came by letter, Morse code, or website, as long as it came. But the problem here seems to be that revolution-by-website is uncool.

Really? To paraphrase Emma Goldman, If I can't use white out, I don't want to be a part of your revolution?

No, the concern must be somewhere else. I would argue that it lies in the connection between aesthetics, usability, and ideology. In my view, the college literary culture Charles remembers was a fairly elite one, if not "elitist." The avant-garde, political literary or philosophical text has never been a popular text except in narrow social circles, even in the somewhat narrow sociological scope of a college campus (more narrow in the 60s than today). And those circles still exist, maybe more so in graduate school than at the undergrad level, but they are there. They just don't necessarily lead to revolution (or even to social activism) b/c texts don't work like that.

The revolutionary website unlike Charles' radical text is usable, accessible. The inscrutability, if it exists, lies on the level of code, a strikingly different literacy from that of the Beats. The text that will likely change the contemporary world will be lines of code rather than lines of poetry. But the social impact of the text won't rely on that level of expertise.

For instance, Charles takes a jab at Twitter, which seems like a popular thing to do lately, when he writes, "the new slogan seems to be 'Don't trust anyone over 140 characters.'" But that's somewhat missing the point. The tweet is what one does with Twitter. The composition is the code that created it. Value that as you like, but for every inane tweet one can uncover, I'm willing to bet there is an equally inane comment that has been made by some reader of Howl. The value of Howl, as for any text, is that it has the potential to be read in powerful ways… but usually it probably isn't. Perhaps the same thing can be said of a web application. It has the potential to be used in powerful, even revolutionary ways. 

I don't care to get into a discussion of the revolutionary pedigree of Twitter. That's not the point. What is at stake here is the lingering notion of valuable thinking being tied to a particular media. We expect to see this from conservative thinkers who want to deliver the literary canon. But to get the same kind of discourse from someone purporting to have concern about revolutionary activism is just sad. As if the avant-garde artists and writers of the 60s were not engaged with the emerging technologies of their time.