It has been a common thing in academic circles to talk about the travails of scholars-in-training (i.e. graduate students) in the field of the humanities, most notably in the “superfluous” concentrations of philosophy, literature, history, anthropology . . . (where scholars-in-training spend at least seven years of their “most productive lives” (their twenties) reading books (that no one else does!) “cloistered” in the university as their peers head on to participate in the economy or invest in studies (e.g. in business or law school) that yield higher returns)–i.e. the fields lauded (as compensation?) at the undergraduate level as contributing to the “holistic,” “liberal,” well-rounded development of modern man, especially those that deal with art and culture, what has come to be termed in English as the “humanities.”
This field is in contrast to other faculties in the university in that (as opposed to business, where people are trained how to make and manage money; or the technical and engineering sciences, where research leads to, as it were, high-demand and high-value “material” results (esp. those high-tech “defense systems”), or the purely theoretical field of mathematics, for which there is high demand (because of its use in the first two), and even human/social science disciplines such as psychology, for which a practical use (e.g. counseling in different types of organization) could be found) the different areas of the humanities, so it is portrayed/thought, produce no ostensible “practical” results (hence its “superfluity”)–which is a euphemistic way of saying that study and practice in the humanities do not lead to “products” highly priced–monetarily–in the social system. To say it plainly, they do not “make money” (Is that one more reason why it’s called the “humanities”?).
This very (“human”?) distinction is an ideological tactic of the current/established (“practical”) economic system (upheld by the State) to reinforce the marginalization of the humanistic fields. So, by personal qualities, talent (in contrast to “skill set”), disposition, or for whatever reason, I choose to concentrate on a specific discipline, pursue a specific study. Just because (as it often does, when the choice is based on personal liking, preference, i.e. desire) it happens to not produce “practical” results, I’m supposed to be resigned to the field’s–and my–”fate,” if not altogether regret my decision not to head on like they (business and public, i.e. State, bureaucrats) did (who now have a house of their own, a wife, perhaps a kid . . .) and (every single day in graduate school, especially those very trying moments when my work seems to fall short of standard (because, let’s admit it, the only way to console oneself in such an insecure field is to think megalomaniacally that one’s work is exceptional somehow, that one has “something to say,” that, in an ego trip/consolation, one is going to be “big,” or, at least, that his/her work is on par with the field s/he so wants to be a part of, i.e. that s/he has a “use” in it), if I get to produce at all; and every month, when I receive that (shameful, really!) meager pay for unchallenging (teaching-assistantship) work (that the established names of the university do not deem it proper to perform)), feel bad about it, feel like a chose a “lesser” (because less compensated and uncertain about the future) life than (the so successful–already!) others live?
Is it true, though? Is it true that the humanities–say, philosophy–does not produce “practical” results (and hence, in that way, deserves its marginalization by the more economically pertinent careers, or at least that its status is explicable, understandable, i.e. one can be resigned to it)? Well, what is “practical”? What does “practical” mean? Isn’t it true that it is the economic system itself–the very system that marginalizes non-economic fields–that defines what is “practical,” i.e. what professions it compensates and with how much?
Compared to economic fields–say, financial trading, for which speculation is one of the fastest and surest way to make money, whose practitioners compose a growing percentage of the world’s richest men!–does philosophy really produce less “practical,” concrete, useful things? Well, how concrete, how useful are these things that financial trading produces? To be generous, let’s say that the money that investors and stock traders play around with–I mean, invest in promising businesses that produce concrete, “useful” material goods and services–let’s say that this activity of theirs leads to actual commodities being produced, available, and distributed to the public, that, in the end, it provides for people’s daily needs. But isn’t it true that there is only so much–a bare minimum, really–that we–the people supposedly served by these benevolent (and in that benevolence, duly rewarded) enterprises–need? That, of all the commodities on offer in the market, we can name, what, five–food, shelter, clothing, tools for work . . .–and only a minimum quantity at that–that we absolutely–really–need?
As for the rest, well, isn’t it true that these enterprises themselves stimulate their own demand (for their own goods) by advertising savvily to lead people to buy over and above what they really need–even what they desire–sometimes even to their detriment (as is apparent with obesity in the United States), this when the great part–the good part, the best products, the top of the line–of the consumption comes from the top 20% of all customers, that is, from the rich, i.e. from themselves who own these enterprises? Factor in the part that speculation plays and it is realized that financial trading for the most part does not even consist in investing in (providing for funds, thus making possible) these businesses that “serve” the public! And to them who practice it accrues most of the world’s wealth!
As for philosophy, is it true that it creates less concrete, less useful, less essential things? For the most part, philosophy does stay in the virtual: reflecting, thinking, clarifying ways of thinking, establishing theoretical foundations, analyzing phenomena/experiences, theorizing occurences/events/programs . . . But, when effective, isn’t it true that philosophy does produce concrete things: a blog, a journal article, a book–a piece of writing that gets read by someone (or a lecture in the classroom that gets heard by students) that then influences them, perhaps even changes the way they think, the way they see things, influencing their attitude about the world, their actions, the political choices they make–that then lead to further concrete things! Philosophy (and, in general, the humanities), like the economic fields–as with everything–really produces, produces real things. (As Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari like to say again and again: everything is production!) It is no–by no means–less productive than economics, and those that it produces (especially given the increasing virtualization of demand and consumption of economic commodities, as is apparent in financial speculation and Internet transactions) are no less real–or, for that matter, (in its effects) actual. Philosophy really does do something (in the virtual, in the mind, in the way that one thinks) and does effect something very actual: an ethic, a politics, an act, perhaps, someday, even the Revolution . . . Hence, when a philosopher is told (by his dad?) to Do something, do something with your life, something productive! the retort: Well, for crying out loud, I am!
This is somewhat of an optimistic stance, of course. Let’s explore a more pessimistic one. Let’s say that philosophy does do something in the virtual, influences the way we think. But, even so, it can be asked: for what? After all, even if we get to do something virtually (e.g. change thought), thinking does not (in the actual) change anything. You can think all you want, think the way you want, but it does not matter. Thought is not really potent. There are forces stronger than thought (e.g. desire), forces that short-circuit it, leading to the phenomenon in which ones does something that, in theory–in thought–s/he shouldn’t. The influence and potency of thought, of course, gets even more problematic in the field of politics (where there are a number–and not just one–of (supposedly consensual) actors, with all their conflicting thoughts, all their singular desires (already contradictory in themselves!). . .). Given this view, are not the economic fields, after all, more “practical”?
But does the Wall Street trader, the business manager, the economist of the Federal Reserve Bank, the bureaucrat of the State–they who work by, explain, and uphold the mechanisms of the current/established order, the capitalist system–really produce more concrete, more potentially actual (and actually potent), more important things? Are not their activities just as passing, their contributions (their effects) just as miniscule? Their work may be closer to the actual (in providing actual goods, handling actual business or government affairs) (as pointed out above, this is not even true necessarily!), but it–like the philosopher’s, maybe even more than the philosopher’s–is just a cog in the machine (as the trader buys this particular stock, sells the other, buys another one . . .; as the business manager, paid for by the investment the trader has made, ensures the proper working of the assembly line, makes sure the good’s specifications get to the advertising department in time, so that it gets marketed and, ultimately, bought; as the economist hands in his analysis as to what level the interest rates should be to allow people to buy the goods on sale; as the cabinet member writes a letter to the higher authorities requesting more funds for the department), whose fleeting significance, in the next moment, passes idly by (as opposed to the philosopher’s, which, since it is (can be) outside of the system, can actually be passed on, remembered) . . . (Moreover, what happens to these cogs when the market (the bigger machine) isn’t doing/working so well, as is being experienced in the United States now?) The works of the economic fields are no more important, necessary, significant, lasting, or fundamental than philosophy’s. It’s all just a cog in the machine.
Why are the economically-related professions more highly compensated, then? What could it be that sets them apart? What could it be that gives their works a higher monetary value than philosophy’s creations? What is the criteria by which products (which, as pointed out, both economic and non-economic professions create/produce/make!) are measured by virtue of which they are given a particular value, a monetary price?
It can’t be need. If that were so, food should be the most expensive commodity–and that is obviously not the case! Just take a look at milk. It’s one of the cheapest things you can buy (half a liter, 99 cents at Walmart!). Again, there is only so much that we need–and those that provide it for us are not exactly the highest paid either!
Perhaps desire, then. After all, isn’t it that the most expensive goods in (and out of) the market are luxury goods, namely the latest IPhone, New York Upper East Side fashion, Russian caviar, top-of-the-line French wine, California mansions, Italian sports cars?
Desire, yes, but desire that has been socialized/symbolized (psychoanalyzed?), if by that we mean socialized (which, to begin with, everything is, that is: social!) by the social structure presided over (though not fully controlled) by the dominant group that mold desire to be a certain way, in which this process is designated as (singular, rebellious, revolutionary) desire’s (conformist, disciplined, normalized) “socialization.”
So we pay the highest price for the things that we desire. Thing is, what we desire turns out to be what they (playing the role of the Lacanian Other) tell us to, in fact, make us desire, (which, in the process, is also and perpetuates) what they (members of the dominant group) themselves desire.
Thus what we have is a social system in which those valued most highly (as indicated by their price) are economic goods and those reg/warded (and also, valued) highly are its practitioners, the economic army (as in the expression, the “Fed’s army of economic analysts”), the State bureaucrats–truly an economic system. That is how things are–simply because the system happens to prioritize material–and certain material–things and the fad that they (are made to) go through (as new things come and go and get replaced by other new things) (to stimulate demand/desire).
Now, this is not to say that these economic goods that are produced are not in any way tied to need. In some cases (as in dining in a restaurant), they are (i.e. tied to a fundamental need, food). But a certain prestige is put on top of necessities in which they become luxury needs. Thus, instead of eating, one dines at a fancy restaurant. Instead of buying a house, one buys a big house with a pool or by the beach in an exclusive neighborhood. Instead of buying a car, one buys the latest Italian sports model. The line separating desire from need is not very clear, and it is in their interpenetration that value gets manipulated most (ideologically?) effectively. And, of course, certain needs/desires are prioritized over others. Thus, luxuries such as these are priced higher than, say, things as “superfluous” such as a good education, a good book to read, the ability to write, the skill of communicating eloquently, the background to intelligently participate in public discourse, appreciation for culture and the arts, knowledge of history, anything that has to do with thought, really–precisely the things that philosophy and the humanities produce.
The products valued/priced highly, then, are the products that stimulate socialized desire–and socialized in two senses. First, as already mentioned, what (i.e. desire that) is at the beginning social is made to go through a process so that it conforms and reinforces the desire of the dominant group: social desire becomes desire socialized (by the dominant social group; in that sense, the dominant group co-opts the very category social as its own, as though it had a monopoly on it, as though that was the only way to become social(ized)). It can also be discerned easily that the profession(al)s that produce these (socially desirous products) are, in a very real sense, cogs in the machine. These professionals work within the system, aligning their own line of work with it (as in trading by the rules) if not outrightly making sure that the system works (as in adjusting the interest rates to ensure that people can trade), working by, explaining, and upholding the system that way. These professionals are thus socialized in a second sense in that they work inside the social system rather than questioning, challenging, or undermining it. Thus the term for them by Deleuze and Guattari as functionaries of the state, state bureaucrats: bureaucrats both of the State (the government) and of the state, i.e. the current state of things, the established order (which, for a while now, has been the regime of capitalism).
Wonder any more why these agents are paid more than scholars in the humanities–they who actually study history, other cultures, other social structures, previous and future potential modes/ways/orders of life, they who–rather than just accepting its precepts and prescriptions and “socializing” themselves into it–actually have the critical eye to look through and beyond the current/established state/system/order of things? Of course the current/established system/order would pay these state functionaries/bureaucrats more. They serve as its engine. They ensure that it works. They perpetuate it. Therein lies the difference between the “economic” and the “non-economic” fields. That is the only difference! Namely, while the economic fields ensure that the machine functions (as the dominant group intends it to), the humanities (at least potentially) looks beyond it, questions and challenges it. Hence their marginalization.
This is, of course, also the reason why, together with luxuries (that are designated as needs: luxury needs), another type of goods that are, in some ways, related to the humanities, are, despite that relation, highly priced, namely the products of pop culture (television shows, films, pop music . . .). Their inflated value relies on the fact that they reinforce the high value of the luxury needs by distracting the public (from the valuable, far-sighted, comprehensive cultural traditions that the humanities spends its time on?) and making bearable the process in which the state perpetuates itself (though, as Walter Benjamin argues, pop culture may have a potential to do something else, that is, if it is politicized), if not by outrightly reinforcing the very process in which the state works by copying its mechanism (as is apparent, for example, in what can be called the “fad process,” in which, a new thing arrives, gets out of fashion, only to be replaced by something newer, which is really not that different from the old . . .). In that sense, pop culture is culture that has socialized itself in the current/established state/order. Hence also their valued/priced state status. (Isn’t it a perverse phenomenon that someone like Britney Spears is worth more than university professors, that the latest gadgets, DVDs of television series, movies, a new suit/dress, a new car–rather than mind-opening, or at least, intellectually-stimulating books–are, based on how much we’re willing to pay for them, what we supposedly desire? More precisely, isn’t there gross injustice in this? Isn’t there something wrong with that?)
So the scholar-in-training in the humanities reads his books, territorializes in the library, teaches unchallenging (rigidly-formatted (programmed?)) freshmen courses (and checks those papers!), goes home at night to do some more reading, hardly has the resource (time, energy, money) for a decent social life, gets ignored by his/her professors, hasn’t seen his/her family for a while, has to write this paper meant for a journal though would never be taken seriously by its editors, must go to conferences whose topics s/he only has the slight interest in, pay for the flight and accommodation (because of course nothing’s going on in his own university town) to receive a flat reception within what is a closed circle of very few people reinforcing further that despite all that hard work and patience and background historical/cultural knowledge no one really cares about what s/he does, then finds out that next year he must search for a new source of funding–when he’s already borrowed enough (was made to borrow, there was no other choice if s/he wanted to get where s/he is now at all, which is nowhere) as an undergraduate, was made to be indebted to society that way (if only to be forced to be a state bureaucrat in order to pay it back?) . . . How can a scholar-in-training not feel disheartened, frustrated, ashamed, even, guilty–demoralized? As though s/he has made the wrong choice in life and it would never pay back, it would always be that way. As though s/he has made the wrong choice just by virtue of the fact that s/he dared to be different from them bureaucrats, dared to follow what s/he wanted to study/pursue/do in life, i.e. dared to follow his/her desire.
As some kind of saving grace, some foundation by a big corporation comes to the rescue and promises to give him/her further funding (but with limits, of course: Just one year more. Finish your dissertation by then! (And please, thank me, i.e. don’t challenge me, don’t make it so revolutionary . . .)). So, let me get this straight: First these very same people (by virtue of the system we function in) get to make me feel guilty by taking out the compensation that’s due to my field. Then they get to make themselves feel better by contributing to it (and to my education in it, i.e. by “fostering the arts”) as charity (i.e. as left-over from all the other things they’ve bought and satisfactorily consumed)? By the very same stroke they get to take bread from the hungry pauper and give it back to him (Charity!) after which the pauper not only does not question the act but in fact thanks them? What the f**k kind of logic is that? Nothing but the logic of the slave that power gets to institute in even the smartest of minds.