Stars Upon Thars

“This so-called real world is the same place we’ve always been, of course….”

So said Greg Johnson, in the close to his public lecture the other day (read the conclusion to his paper here). This is an exceedingly important point, I think; the university as a whole, and of course the Humanities in particular, are often accused of being disengaged from this real world; the privileged, “ivory tower” (a phrase we get from the Song of Solomon–hardly a working class text itself, but I digress) that we in the university inhabit is thought somehow to be secluded, and thereby protected, from the rest of the world. This otherworldly realm of merely immaterial ideas (as it is characterized) is therefore something apart from the material world of matters that matter.

Students of religion with a keen eye should recognize something familiar here: the old notion of sacredness. But not as it is used by those who think it names some secret somethingness–that is, those who talk this talk of fake versus real worlds. No. Instead, recall what the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, wrote (and which was published one hundred years ago this year, in fact) about what it means to make (the infinitive verb is key) something sacred: to set it apart and to forbid it (and voila, as French sociologists say, more infinitive verbs make their appearance). Such students will likely recall that, for Durkheim, the word sacred doesn’t name some mysterious or precious substance or kernel lurking deep within the thing called sacred; and so “to make” something sacred does not mean to place some spell on it or change its very nature in some magical way.

Instead, for Durkheim, to sacralize simply means human ingenuity and labor; some generic item in our environment can be seen and used in a new way by members of a group inasmuch as they create and enact a rule system around it for a set of purposes that they happen to have–e.g., anyone knows that a table can easily become an altar if, for example, only I can touch it and not you, if its only use is this as opposed to that, and if it is placed here in just this way and not there in that other way. (We all know people who turn, say, church pews into rustic benches and transform old churches into cool lofts with hardwood floors, no?)

But there’s more, of course: if you contravene these rules then there’s going to be trouble!The rules are policed because there are those who benefit from them. And for those who follow these rules–those who grant both the rules and those who police them, legitimacy–a sense of group membership results. Or as Durkheim wrote in the closing page of Book 1, Chapter 1:

For students who have mulled over the critical scholarship that has built on Durkheim’s work since 1912, it won’t be difficult to see how this act of act of separation generally comes with an act of judgement and thus ranking–that is, a value system attends the separation, such that what the rule system allows us to see as here is judged to be better than what we now see as there, this is now seen as original and primary and that is judged subsequent and secondary; I am authentic and you are fake. Having stars or not on your belly is an arbitrary difference, of course…, until a set of practices is put in place to rally and rank one group over the other. Dr Seuss understood this.

Given that we breathe and eat and talk and act up here in the ivory tower, just as people do down there in the real world (did you catch the up/down reference? Does it imply something…?), the curious listener, with one ear attending to Durkheim, might start to wonder about what is going on when someone makes a claim about “the real world,” implying that others are somehow less than real. Given that people everyday put to various uses all of the skills that are practiced in universities–as Johnson made plain in his lecture, which focused on how members of indigenous Hawaiian groups read and write and listen and debate and work the US legal system to their group’s advantage–then that curious listener might start to wonder a little more about just what makes the university so different–different according to whom, from what, and by what standard?

They’ll notice that sometimes the distinction is premised on government supported institutions versus the free market. But since tax dollars are spent all over the economy, it’s a little tough to maintain the distinction in any sensible way–for instance, do you recall the auto industry “bail out”? Consider when the US government, under President Carter, co-signed a loan in December of 1979 to allow Chrysler to borrow $1.5 billion, to save it from going under? Or more recently, recall the US government’s 2009 intervention in an auto industry that was then on the edge of a complete collapse, a loan program now estimated to be worth over $25 billion. With news like that, it’s tough to hold onto the myth of the free market, against which one can judge the shortcomings of the supposedly protected ivory tower.

I could never imagine anyone calling the auto industry an ivory tower, even though it today exists in the US largely because we all collectively, through our tax dollars, put a safety net underneath it to protect from, yes, the free market. Why is that…?

As Johnson made clear, we always were in the real, material world, it’s just that in the daily tug and pull of social life there are those who wish to prioritize parts within it, to their benefit and to the detriment of others–after all, there’s only so much of everything to go around. In this zero sum game, there’s something at stake for being able to represent your interests as natural and their interests as artificial and out of touch–just listen to the way politicians distinguish between “the national interest” and “special interests.”

So the next time someone tells you about the privileges of the ivory tower, asking you what you’ll do when you get into the real world, look a little closer and you might see an arm wrestling match shaping up. And if you look closely enough, you may even see a star on their belly.