Who’s Chasing Whom? Utility, Metamorphosis & the Humanities

An article showed up on my facebook feed recently: “College Tuition Should Vary By Degree, Florida State Task Force Says.” The gist of it is this: “Tuition would be lower for students pursuing degrees most needed for Florida’s job market, including ones in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields,” and higher for “students in fields such as psychology, political science, anthropology, and performing arts … because they have fewer job prospects in the state.”

Once again, the Humanities is singled out for its supposed impracticality and inutility. Read the comments for spirited endorsement of the task force proposal. Here is my favorite:

“Humanity is better served by having more engineers and STEM trained people than anthropologists, literary scholars, etc.”

I love that “etc.” Apparently this reader was too busy serving humanity to actually spell out all the fields of study he or she dismisses in this sentence.

This is the full comment, by the way. Myopia is exhausting

“Apollo and Daphne” by Antonio del Pollaiolo

Reading the comments (why do I do this to myself?), a myth came to mind: Apollo falls in love with Daphne, who flees from him until, seeing she cannot possibly escape, she prays for deliverance and is transformed into a tree. It is a story very much concerned with utility and inutility. Daphne proves useless to Apollo; he catches up not to a lady but a laurel, not a wife but a weed. Here is a myth with a curious appeal for any humanist. Aren’t we like Apollo, always chasing beautiful, elusive ideas that reject and evade us until (assuming we ever catch up) they turn into something completely different than we planned? We who chase the humanities are routinely accused of wasting our time, our futures, the taxpayers’ dollars (seriously?), and for what? Our Daphnes will inevitably transform into laurels, and, as Andrew Marvell teases in his poem, “The Garden,” laurels provide but “short and narrow-vergèd shade.” We can crown ourselves with as many honors as we like, in other words, the sun will still get in our eyes.

So the anti-humanists of the Florida task force may have a case to make regarding the inutility of the humanities. Humanists are like Apollo, the humanities like Daphne; we have a love-hate relationship that can bear bitter fruit.

But why stop here? I have to say, I’ve always hated Apollo, that vengeful misogynist. He’s the suckiest of all the Olympians. See The Oresteia. See Marsyas. See Cassandra. See the end of Daphne’s metamorphosis, in which Apollo insists on “lov[ing] her still,” post-transformation:

Yet Phoebus loves her still, and casting round
Her bole, his arms, some little warmth he found.
The tree still panted in th’ unfinish’d part:
Not wholly vegetive, and heav’d her heart.
He fixt his lips upon the trembling rind;
It swerv’d aside, and his embrace declin’d.

How horrible for Daphne, who loved the hunt and the chase, to be stuck numb in the creepy embrace of a predatory god. I’m not altogether comfortable identifying with Apollo, comparing my pursuit of humanistic scholarship to his repellent entrapment of a woman unlucky enough to catch his eye. I can more easily identify with Daphne, as, I think, can a lot of literary scholars, particularly young scholars on the job market for the first, the second, the third time. We compete with hundreds of academics just as well-qualified, just as devoted to useless pursuits; we run alongside each other, trying to prove ourselves, like Daphne, inexhaustible. I think too about writing my dissertation, that first stab we all take at asserting ourselves as authorities in the field, how often I felt not that I was doing the chasing, but being chased, by powers sinister and beautiful and too much for me. It’s the humanities, in this scenario, that play the role of Apollo, we who study them the Daphnes incapable of maintaining a healthy distance. (In the late stages of writing my dissertation, I did not turn into a tree, but I did break out in hives, all over my arms and legs.)

When I read yet another hierarchization of academia, and find once again my field on the bottom, it’s hard not to feel it like a kick to the stomach. That Florida task force proposal, it knocks the wind out of me, slows me down, even though I have no reason to respect a decision-making body that so condescendingly and absurdly justifies penalizing students for choosing subjects it transparently disdains:

“The purpose would not be to exterminate programs or keep students from pursuing them. There will always be a need for them,” said Dale Brill, who chairs the task force. “But you better really want to do it, because you may have to pay more.”

At my angriest, I see little difference between Brill’s contemptuous concession and the nasty threat of any petty, jealous Olympian—the Zeuses, Athenas and Apollos who’ve said to countless victims of their tyranny: I will make you pay for what you dare to love.

Apollo flaying Marsyas alive

So perhaps it is not the humanities or the humanists who are really at home in the role of Apollo. It’s people like Dale Brill, chasing humanists and humanities both in a concentrated effort to catch us, immobilize us, not out of love but a dictatorial mania I cannot begin to understand. I just want to get away.

So who’s chasing whom in this not-so-great debate over the use of the humanities? As a literary scholar I can identify with Apollo and with Daphne, in both her tree and human forms (what junior scholar sending out countless job application letters to schools across the country doesn’t have some idea what’s it like to feel stuck and scattered at the same time, to be “not wholly vegetive,” heaving out your heart?). Literature is the thing I chase that also chases me. And changes me. I can’t afford to stop running, to stop working, just to defend my discipline against lame charges of inutility. The accusation may have legs, but they are stumpy and slow ones, easy to outrun, even easier to overtake. Watch Marjorie Garber dash right over them (okay, perhaps a little too quickly), in her recent book on The Use and Abuse of Literature. “We do literature a real disservice,” she writes, “if we reduce it to knowledge or to use, to a problem to be solved. If literature solves problems, it does so by its own inexhaustibility, and by its ultimate refusal to be applied or used, even for moral good” (30).

And later,

“Literary interpretation, like literature, does not seek answers or closure. A multiplicity of persuasive and well-argued ‘meanings’ does not mean the death or loss of meaning, but rather the living presence of the literary work in culture, society, and the individual creative imagination. To say that closure is impossible is to acknowledge the richness and fecundity of both the reading and the writing process.” (283)

“The use of literature begins here,” Garber concludes, in a section titled “In which nothing is concluded,” in a chapter titled “the Impossibility of Closure.” It’s a book that gives you the run-around, like so many books whose final lines signal nothing but that the real work has just begun, the work of transformation. We never know what the metamorphosis will be. Something with wings? Roots? Claws and an ugly growl? Something difficult, perhaps impossible, to merely use—that we can count on.

The Florida task force seems to believe that humanity would be better served if all college-bound 17-year-olds would simply decide how they want to be used, how they will conform to “the general market principles of supply and demand.” If I were 17, I would pray for deliverance from forces that would chase me from humanity into mere functionality, and I would find deliverance in the humanities.

I did find it. I do find it. I am finding it again.

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Christine Hoffmann

About Christine Hoffmann

Christine Hoffmann (PhD University of Arkansas, MFA Art Institute of Chicago) studies the shifting standards for credibility and utility that develop inside post-Gutenberg and post-digital rhetorical environments. Her scholarly work has been published in College Literature, the CEA Critic, PLL, the CEA Forum and, somewhat randomly, Slayage: the Online Journal of Buffy Studies. A few short stories can be found in Make magazine, Eclectica and Loose Change. She also blogs regularly on TECHStyle, the forum for digital pedagogy and research by the Georgia Tech Brittain Fellows. Christine looks forward to connecting the teaching of multimodal composition to her research into rhetorics of struggle, cultures of collecting, and the advantages of copious expression.
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