In the beginning, I loved university because it expanded my horizons; it made them as big as the world. At the University of Utah, where I was an undergraduate, I was privileged enough to be exposed to several intense, broad survey courses whose scope covered many decades or even centuries and much of the globe—in art, in literature, in film, in geography and culture, in history.
These courses created in me for the first time the sense that the world—and my place in it—could be understood in some way, that there was sense to be made of things, that our massive, late modern melee was something more than just random noise comprising random forces that popped into and out of being like inscrutable subatomic particles.
This ultimately led me to grad school, first at Chicago, where I turned up with a naive list of things I wanted to know more about—Marxism and Marxist theory, 20th century social movements, the history of ethnic conflict, how these all related to the rise of a new, global regime of computing technology, and so on.
I struggled at bit at Chicago because in fact the courses there were not like the ones I’d had at Utah. While some of them were titled so as to suggest that they discussed such themes, in practice they didn’t discuss themes as such much at all, at least not explicitly. Rather, each one of them went in-depth with one or several cases that were, I suppose, meant to be representative or illuminative in some way. The nature of this representation or illumination, however, was often left unstated, and few claims were made about themes or about the big picture. There was not weaving of these strands into something more; instead, the approach to basket-weaving was to lay a series of four or six pieces of straw on the table, parallel to one another, inspect them meticulously under a magnifying glass, and declare them to be, obviously, a part and parcel of what “at times is called” a basket.
As I pushed repeatedly for something more and continued to try to learn what I’d wanted to learn and do what I’d wanted to do, some of the faculty there got a bit tired of me. I scored well enough on my masters thesis, but it became clear very quickly that there wouldn’t be a place for me to do a Ph.D. at Chicago. Instead, a couple of the faculty and staff suggested that I ought to go to The New School, where they did my “kind of thing,” whatever that was. (I wasn’t sure then, and I’m still not quite sure to what it was, exactly, they were referring.)
The New School was a very exciting environment and I quickly found, in fact, several faculty members that were able to set me on the path, once again, to bigger forms of understanding. One of them became my dissertation chair. Another did not; he was savaged by certain other faculty behind his back for being too much and “intellectual historian” and not doing enough with “particular contemporary cases.”
It was a bit of a political struggle to finish my Ph.D. and the details are unimportant here (apropos of this post, in fact). What is important is that I finished and that as my time as a Ph.D. student wound down and now, afterward, I’ve found my interest in academics also waning. Don’t get me wrong—I still think and I still write and make notes, and my committee was incredibly supportive at the end of the day and put themselves on the line to support me. But it’s hard to get excited about professoring, or about spending time amongst the up-and-coming professoriate.
Why? As I get older and develop some distance from—as well as a retrospective perspective on—my time within the academy, it becomes clearer to me. I still want to know and understand the things that interested me as an undergraduate so many years ago. But as Camille Paglia perhaps most famously points out, the “big survey courses” and “metanarrative” are well out of fashion in the academy.
I wanted to learn in bigger and bigger swaths and circles of fact and theory and history. To see the world at a glance, not in order to obscure specificity, but in order to understand more completely how it all fits together. Instead, there was constant pressure to learn in smaller and smaller circumferences, less and less scope with more and more detail—because, after all (at least by the reckoning of much of the academy toay), there is no “big picture” version of history, of society, etc. It does not all “fit together.” Any claims to the contrary are mere metanarratives, which are always at some level petty power grabs and ideological baggage of the most coarse kind.
In today’s academy, there are only the details; a search for or belief in anything beyond that is a way of either consciously or unconsciously serving the narrow interests of one narrow group or another in some narrow way. There is no whole, there is no world, there is no history, there is no big picture to be drawn and understood and celebrated. These things are mirages.
The job, rather, is to adopt a small handful of “cases”—particular locations, identity groups, events, etc.—and to dig into them for one’s entire career until once can state rote who was missing what button on their uniform on what day in what location, and how the importance (or lack thereof) placed on this missing button at the time expresses something previously ineffable about the power dynamics not of the place, or of the time, but of that individual and the three or four individuals around them and their three or for particular identities, which cannot even be generalized to identity groups, as such generalization does violence to the particularity of it all, which is an asserted, often a priori value par excellence of the contemporary academy.
I have faded from academics because all along I wanted to study and come to conceive of the forest, of its past, of its future, and of its dynamics and properties. Today, this is seen as a generally unethical, or even immoral thing to desire. The job today, as it turns out, isn’t to study the forest, which would be to oppress its trees by failing to recognize their singularity. Rather, the job is to study the six or ten trees immediately around you in such detail that you can name, catalog, and describe at length every single branch, every pinecone, every knot, and every root in sufficient detail to enable anyone who hasn’t seen those particular trees to draw or even reconstruct them accurately from your account.
Well, that and to come to understand, accept, and internalize the notion that there is no forest, there never was a forest, and any claim that there is or ever was a forest is a matter of oppression of the trees.
At the end of the day, this is why I left academics. Because I wanted to study the forest—and after spending enough time in academics to get a Ph.D., I finally came to terms with the fact that the contemporary academy was never going to tell me anything more about it. I could not get to where I wanted to go by starting on a college campus, and in fact the Very Smart Powers That Be on college campuses would consider my quest to be a harmful one and would actively seek to subvert it so long as I pursued it there.
To learn about the forest, I’ve got to do it on my own. Somehow and sometime. When I get the time, &c.