And Now, Genderqueer Soybeans
Heather Mac Donald alerts us to a free public lecture next week at Berkeley: Queering Agriculture, described thus on the university’s website:
So why queer agriculture? This seems like an odd question but becomes more obvious with research and analysis. This talk highlights vital ways queering and trans-ing ideas and practices of agriculture are necessary for more sustainable, sovereign, and equitable food systems for the creatures and systems involved in systemic reproductions that feed humans and other creatures. Since agriculture is literally the backbone of economics, politics, and “civilized” life as we know it, and the manipulation of reproduction and sexuality are a foundation of agriculture, it is absolutely crucial queer and transgender studies begin to deal more seriously with the subject of agriculture. This talk highlights the normative ways that popular culture, food activism, and government regulations have framed sustainable food systems in the United States. By focusing on popular culture representations and government legislation since 9/11, it will become clearer how the growing popularity of sustainable food is laden with anthroheterocentric assumptions of the “good life” coupled with idealized images and ideas of the American farm, and gender, radicalized and normative standards of health, family, and nation.
I think this is saying that capitalism castrated Mr. Green Jeans, but I could be wrong.
Seriously, though, it’s “absolutely crucial” that gay studies assault agriculture? Really? Are we going to have to live through Gay Lysenkoism now?
Mac Donald says that “people outside the academy still do not grasp that such discourse doesn’t represent some eccentric backwater within the university—it lies at the very core of today’s humanities.” More:
The current political debate about how to make college more affordable proceeds in blind ignorance of the actual content of college courses. University presidents are expert at presenting a reassuring, normal face to the outside world, pretending that their institutions are all about practical knowledge creation and the elevation of students’ future earnings (the latter function an improper goal for the university in any case). What needs to be understood is that the people running the humanities today are no longer the guardians of our culture, but its nemesis.
Here in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal, in his two terms, has gutted LSU, the flagship university — and he’s just announced a 51 percent cut in its funding for next year (I’ll be writing about this later today). The university president said yesterday that they’re looking to lose 300 faculty members, and shut entire programs down if the governor’s budget goes through. A professor friend the other day told me that the feeling among the faculty is “apocalyptic.”
I don’t know what the state of LSU’s humanities programs are, so don’t read this as a commentary on them. I’m only using LSU’s dire situation as a real-world example of the kind of choices university administrators will face as the college bubble deflates. So, let’s say you’re a state college president, and your government has told you it’s going to cut your funding in half. You’ve got to kill programs. What’s going to be first on the chopping block? Undoubtedly the humanities.
You could say that our society doesn’t value the humanities as it should, and you would be right. In a perfect world, it would be as hard for a university president to cut a Shakespeare or Socrates course as it is to cut a science or engineering class. But you cannot blame the philistines for the irrelevance of the humanities. A couple of years ago, Georgetown’s Jacques Berlinerblau complained that his fellow humanities professors have marginalized themselves from the wider community. Excerpt:
Our students, and the educated public at large, neither want us nor need us.
There are many compelling explanations for the sorry plight of the humanities in 21st-century America. I have little interest in expounding upon them here, other than to observe that we, as a guild, are fanatically and fatally turned inward. We think and labor alone. We write for one another. And by “one another,” I mean the few hundred or so people who inhabit our fields—hectares and patches of scholarly specialization.
For the humanities to persevere (and for humanists to stop perennially bemoaning their miserable fate like the despondent cast of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya) we must exorcise the demon of inwardness. We must cure ourselves of a psychological affliction that compels us to equate professionalism with specialization, erudition with footnotes, and profundity with the refusal to tackle broader questions not of interest to “one another.”
My contention is—and state legislators, boards of trustees, and belt-tightening administrations are there with me—that the humanities had better start serving people, people who are not professional humanists. Our survival as a guild is linked to our ability to overcome our people problem. If we don’t, well, then just get used to more memos from the provost announcing the “strategic migration of faculty resources” to the B School and away from your liberal-arts college.
Nobody needs to know some grad student’s narcissistic pondering of whether or not soybeans are gay. This is a perfect example of the fatal and fanatical inwardness of the humanities. It is hard enough to make the case to legislators for why the ordinary, classical study of the humanities is vital to our civilization. It is impossible to make the case that the jargon-laden ideological claptrap that constitutes much of humanities scholarship is worthwhile. I’m not a scholar, but I could easily go testify before a Louisiana legislative committee and speak passionately about why Dante matters, and by extension, why supporting teaching the humanities is vital to our culture and civilization. But I would be laughed out of the room if I tried to tell those lawmakers that it’s “absolutely crucial” to apply queer theory to agriculture, and they would be wise to fully fund the humanities so we can do just that.
And you know what? They would be right to roll their eyes and keep their wallets closed. The trouble is, the real humanities, not this politicized nonsense, suffer too. Maybe the humanities have to collapse before they can be rebuilt. To paraphrase Andrew Mellon, maybe the rottenness has to be purged from the system. What a grim thought.
The point is, this is not just theoretical for college presidents. In the past, the president and the board of trustees might have been fine letting the humanities faculty queer agriculture all they wanted, as long as they didn’t frighten the horses. In many places, the money is no longer there for that kind of thing. Something’s got to give. Disciplines that no longer speak to the wider community, and have little worth saying, are going to be the first ones against the wall.