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And Now, Genderqueer Soybeans

Heather Mac Donald alerts us to a free public lecture next week at Berkeley: Queering Agriculture [1], 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 [2] now?

Mac Donald says [3] 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 [4], 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 [5] 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.

Via Prufrock.  [6]

64 Comments (Open | Close)

64 Comments To "And Now, Genderqueer Soybeans"

#1 Comment By David J. White On February 6, 2015 @ 3:40 pm

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.

I’m reminded of bit on one of Tom Lehrer’s comedy albums. In a rambling introduction to one of his songs, he tells the story of the late Dr. Samuel Gall (inventor of the gallbladder), who “practiced animal husbandry … until they caught him at it one day.”

#2 Comment By NS On February 6, 2015 @ 3:53 pm

I’ve become increasingly convinced that the humanities will only be saved if they are withdrawn from the academy. Despite being a lover of the humanities myself and current humanities major and so invested in the opposite, I know this to be true. In fact, it is because I am currently involved with the institutionalized humanities that I know their salvation must lie outside of the academy. Why? Because the academy is anti-humanist. With very few exceptions, professors do not approach the humanities from a place of wonder and love, hoping to reflect on their lives and respond to the burning of existence through the contemplation of these works. Words like “wonder”, “love”, “genius”, “brilliant”, “hope”, “nature”, “human”, and above all else, “Truth” are entirely absent. To bring up any of them is to be anathema to the entire edifice. It is to invite quizzical glances and derision. It is to be dismissed upon the basis of Foucault and Queer Theory, to be condescended and seen as alien. Indeed, I have had a professor say “We should just assume that Queer Theory has done away with gender.” The worst part about it is that the “queering of soybeans” isn’t even the problem.

Let me re-phrase, it’s only part of the problem in that it is the end result of an even bigger problem. The real problem is that the humanities are approached absolutely devoid of any notion that what is being written about and discussed in these texts has any connection to human life as it is lived. Any insight into human life is routinely delegitimized as “universal psychologizing”, a declaration that has been foisted upon me numerous times when I have attempted to speak about something called Truth. The origins of this lie in the attempt by literary critics to transport the objective methodology of science into their profession in the 60s and 70s. In the pursuit of this they foist texts onto the operating tables and cut them open, peer inside them to dispel any mystery, and then throw them off the table without having the decency to sew them up. It’s all about breaking. I hear this verb used constantly along with others indicating destruction. Works of art are meant to be broken open, their binaries shattered, their hierarchies deconstructed. In pursuit of this they make a mockery of the English language, routinely making up words such as “regendered”, “performativity”, and “plurivocity”. In due course, notions such as “emotional resonance” and the imagination were ruthlessly ejected. This is logical from their standpoint. How to establish a science of literary criticism if one is constantly interjecting unquantifiable phenomena such as emotion and imagination? And so after gouging emotion and imagination out of the endeavor, what was left was the feeble, useless process of cutting up language this way and that.

This, however, was not the end. The attempt at turning the study of literature into a science occurred simultaneously with the political excesses of the 60s and so the academy and its method of teaching literature became ruthlessly politicized, further despoiling it. The relativisms of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud joined the fray and so the non-existence, indeed the impossibility, of Truth was added to the this already ravaged picture producing the toxic hybrid of a science without objectivity. And so now their is a totally impoverished methodology married to absolute purposelessness. This is the state of the humanities. This is what allows the queering of soybeans to be a legitimate topic of debate.

The critical side effect of this was the transformation of the professoriate into a priestly caste. They believed that understanding literature was their provenance and theirs alone because it could be only understood adequately through the language and methodologies they had developed. Their logic went like this: one could only understand a text through deconstruction (or some other incarnation of theory. Eve Sedgwick has said that no part of Western civilization can be understood without exploring homosexuality) and so only professors of literature who had read Derrida and de Man and had practiced deconstruction truly understood literature. And thus a priestly caste was formed. Of course, like any priestly caste, it is concerned not with Truth but with the preservation of their status and so they privilege obsfucation over Truth in order to maintain the illusion that they are experts.

It is all so discouraging. One walks into literature classes expecting to discuss the great questions of human life and instead you are reduced to speaking about “disability studies” and Foucault and “narrativity”, engaging in pedantic close readings intended to destabilize meaning.

So, I say, carry on Gov. Jindal and Walker and defund the humanities. Gut them. Let the anti-humanists destroy one another.

Only then can we rebuild.

#3 Comment By EngineerScotty On February 6, 2015 @ 4:22 pm

I’m reminded of bit on one of Tom Lehrer’s comedy albums. In a rambling introduction to one of his songs, he tells the story of the late Dr. Samuel Gall (inventor of the gallbladder), who “practiced animal husbandry … until they caught him at it one day.”

#4 Comment By Darth Thulhu On February 6, 2015 @ 4:54 pm

If an utterly ridiculous academic department is immediately (and deservedly) gutted upon a budget crunch, I fail to see how it was ever anything close to a civilizational threat. Ludicrousness like Queer Soy Theory will swiftly reap what it has sown.

Perhaps the humanities have to move to a simple curriculum at community colleges to be saved from the absurdities of idiotic, navel-gazing academicians. Fair enough. That doesn’t make the idiotic, navel-gazing academicians a threat to anything other than their own livelihoods.

One way or another, Western Civ and stuff like Holocaust studies will survive (or rebloom). Stuff like soyqueer theory will not. We’ll all be better for the pruning, unless we’re useless vestigial academicians engaged in cul-de-sac studies.

#5 Comment By LemmysWart On February 6, 2015 @ 5:31 pm

Here is the program for last year’s International Association of Women Philosophers Symposium:


Peruse the titles of the talks for some genuine hilarity. I’m sorry I missed: “The Emancipated Breeder versus the Free Borg: A Comparative Study of Lesbian Bodies in Speculative Science Fiction”

#6 Comment By Bazaka On February 6, 2015 @ 6:26 pm

Wasn’t there some fundagelical blowhard a couple years ago who claimed that eating soy was making kids gay? Don’t let him see THIS article….

#7 Comment By Jon Swerens On February 6, 2015 @ 8:46 pm

NS said: I’ve become increasingly convinced that the humanities will only be saved if they are withdrawn from the academy.

Maybe he’s right. Two examples of people doing just that are [8] in Moscow, Idaho, and [9] in Bloomington, Indiana, both of which were recently founded by evangelical Reformed churches as true four-year liberal arts colleges — and both happen to exist in small towns with large state universities. They hope to prove that the humanities aren’t dead, they’ve just been sorely mistreated.

(My daughter hopes to attend Athanasius in a year or two.)

#8 Comment By Loic On February 6, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

Transgenic food, transgender people: pushing the envelope of the imaginable and doable in every ambit of human activity/economy, including the nutritional and the sexual–is this not what U.S. economicity, in its particularly transgressional way of conceiving of the organization of life, fundamentally stands for?

#9 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On February 6, 2015 @ 10:11 pm

Wasn’t there some fundagelical blowhard a couple years ago who claimed that eating soy was making kids gay?

Well, if he’s a friend of Pat Robertson, who inherited a fortune based on coal and oil stocks, which he used to fund his political and religious hobbies, this fundagelical blowhard certainly doesn’t want to admit that its mercury poisoning from coal-burning power plants that is making kids gay.

#10 Comment By elizabeth On February 6, 2015 @ 10:21 pm

The development of Genderqueer Soybean Studies has been traced to an auto-correct flaw in an early version of an inappropriately anthropomorphic and hetero-normative artificial intelligence program developed on early 21st Century on Terra.

“Transgenic soybean” was turned into “transgender soybean” and while the mistake was quickly caught, the success of the new discipline was so overwhelming that institutions of higher learning began to require Genderqueer Ag Studies for graduation in all majors.

Galactic Wikipedia, S.D. 14,586.9.

#11 Comment By simonsmith On February 7, 2015 @ 7:42 am

had you been around in athens, you would have said-

‘who needs to think about whether a rock’s really there or not, or whether it’s some shadow in a cave? what does that even mean?’

to stand for the university is to stand for the humanities. to stand for the humanities is to stand for thought to go where it will, absolutely and without preconditions, or a thought about practical applications.
if you think an idea is silly, challenge its bases. if it is silly, it’ll be exposed soon enough. if it isnt so easily exposed you might have to rethink.

and thus we move forward.

without that there is no university, just tech.colleges

#12 Comment By Jon Swerens On February 7, 2015 @ 9:05 am

to stand for the humanities is to stand for thought to go where it will, absolutely and without preconditions, or a thought about practical applications.

So standing for the humanities doesn’t have anything to do with actual humans anymore.

#13 Comment By M_Young On February 8, 2015 @ 4:25 am


#14 Comment By M_Young On February 8, 2015 @ 4:37 am

The tree of forty fruits.