Monthly Archives: October 2011

On Relevance: Frye on Universities and the Deluge of Cant

Frye’s bust in Northrop Frye Hall, Victoria College, University of Toronto. His interview with Ramsay Cook, referenced below, can be found here.


The last six words of my heading are, in fact, the title of an essay (CW 7: 465-69) by Frye about the “bureaucratic cant” that floods any discussion of the role of the university in society, at least from the news media and, even more significantly, within educational bureaucracies themselves, which have internalized the prejudices of larger society outside the colleges and universities.

Bob Denham’s essay “Common Cause” (in his new book published here in our library) draws out the core assumptions of Frye’s understanding of the links identifying criticism, art and literature, and education. The threat to university education has continued to grow over the last four decades. Like any other university, and like the Soviet Union under Stalin, the institution to which I belong, McMaster University, has been regularly subjected to presidential five-year year plans, and now, once again, we have been presented with a new vision from our president, now in the second year of his term. Vision, however, is not the word for what is essentially, to use Frye’s phrase, a deluge of cant, a torrent of clichés and platitudes about the new directions university education must take if we are to keep up with the Joneses and not end up in the dust-bin of history, as if such logic were not the surest guarantee of the oblivion we should be trying to avoid. Predictably, we hear the same old mantras about the necessity of change and the need for “relevance.” In the current political climate, this means that change must go in the direction of digital technology and the immediate utilitarian needs of the economic system and social policies as set by provincial and federal governments. At the federal level, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has already introduced changes tying doctoral and research grants to the perceived immediate needs of society. In an unprecedented way, justification for funding must fall in line with what governments have decided is most useful for society at this particular moment in time; never before in this country has university education been asked to mirror so closely society as it presently exists outside it.

The concept of “relevance” and the meaningfulness of a university education first arose in the late sixties at the time of student unrest on campuses across North America; it was part of protest movements that questioned the absurdity and evil of a society implicated in the horrors of the Vietnam war. Frye was sympathetic to the reasons for the unrest, to the desire of young people at universities to participate fully in society and transform existing arrangements in ways that would bring it closer to a world that makes human sense. But he also believed that the only thing that has had any power to change the world in a positive direction are the arts and sciences. He makes the very illuminating distinction between society as it exists and the genuine and permanent society that remains, even as the ephemeral society of history keeps disappearing. The only enduring society is the one we build up from the study of the physical universe and the study of the imaginative or virtual one that presents us with a vision of the world as it might be if we had the will to change it.

Since the sixties, the idea of relevance urged by a sense of absurdity and alienation has largely shifted to a much more utilitarian one. The exception perhaps has been in the teaching of literature and related humanistic disciplines where the old New Left still holds sway.  Frye observes more than once that relevance as an educational concept on a large scale was invented by the Nazis. In his Northrop Frye in Conversation, a transcription of a series of interviews with David Cayley aired on the CBC in 1989, the word appears in print as Fachwissenschaft. My German is wildly imperfect, but from what I can tell this word simply means subject of knowledge. There may have been an error in transcribing the German word as it was filtered through the goose-honk of Frye’s Maritime accent. The word Frye uses is, I believe, Zweckwissenschaft, or target-knowledge. The Nazis threw all their scientific resources into military and related technology as they prepared for war, but they also, of course, on the cultural front, overhauled humanistic teaching in a ruthless way to make it consistent with their racist theories and propaganda. Everything else was purged. The spectre of such a totalitarian control of education always haunts us, even in a democracy; or, more precisely, it haunts us because fascism, as Frye observed, is a disease of democracy. Among the students of the New Left who came of age in the sixties are many who swallowed their apparent disgust with the irrelevance of the universities and ended up teaching in the humanities. As they took over departments they became instrumental in creating a sea-change of “relevance” in the teaching of literature and the arts. They are now the champions of post-structuralism, New Historicism, cultural studies, and the proliferating sub-disciplines of these essentially ideological forms of criticism. They have overhauled the curriculum so that it now conforms to the issue-oriented dictates of political correctness. They see themselves, to use Frye’s apt phrase, as turning the wheel of history. But the problem, as Frye knew, is that that particular wheel turns on its own, so that what appears to be the permanent form of reality very quickly proves to be another illusion. In the meantime, however, what becomes of the permanent form of society–the world of the arts and sciences–when we pursue a will-of-the wisp and destroy the structures of the university that provide it with a home?

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Quote of the Day: Occupy Mainstream Media

Jesse LaGreca surprises Fox News by knowing far more than Fox News expected. Fox News has not broadcast this interview.

Dahlia Lithwick in Slate takes apart the enervating meme that OWS has “no message.” An excerpt:

Occupy Wall Street is not a movement without a message. It’s a movement that has wisely shunned the one-note, pre-chewed, simple-minded messaging required for cable television as it now exists. It’s a movement that feels no need to explain anything to the powers that be, although it is deftly changing the way we explain ourselves to one another.

Think, for just a moment, about the irony. We are the most media-saturated 24-hour-cable-soaked culture in the world, and yet around the country, on Facebook and at protests, people are holding up cardboard signs, the way protesters in ancient Sumeria might have done when demonstrating against a rise in the price of figs. And why is that? Because they very wisely don’t trust television cameras and microphones to get it right anymore. Because a media constructed around the illusion of false equivalencies, screaming pundits, and manufactured crises fails to capture who we are and what we value.

For the past several years, while the mainstream media was dutifully reporting on all things Kardashian or (more recently) a wholly manufactured debt-ceiling crisis, ordinary people were losing their health care, their homes, their jobs, and their savings. Those people have taken that narrative to Facebook and Twitter—just as citizens took to those alternative forms of media throughout the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring. And just to be clear: They aren’t holding up signs that say “I want Bill O’Reilly’s stuff.” They aren’t holding up signs that say “I am animated by toxic levels of envy and entitlement.” They are holding up signs that are perfectly and intrinsically clear: They want accountability for the banks that took their money, they want to end corporate control of government. They want their jobs back. They would like to feed their children. They want—wait, no, we want—to be heard by a media that has devoted four mind-numbing years to channeling and interpreting every word uttered by a member of the Palin family while ignoring the voices of everyone else.

And there’s this. The mainstream media thrives on simple solutions. It has no idea whatsoever of how to report on a story that isn’t about easy fixes so much as it is about anguished human frustration and fear. The media prides itself on its ability to tell you how to clear your clutter, regrout your shower, or purge your closet of anything that makes you look fat—in 24 minutes or less. It is bound to be flummoxed by a protest that offers up no happy endings. Luckily for us, #OWS doesn’t seem to care.

It must be painful for the pundits at Fox News. The more they demand that OWS explain itself in simple, Fox-like terms, the more cheerfully they are ignored by the occupiers around the country. As efforts to ridicule the protesters fail, attempts to repurpose the good old days of enemies lists falter; and efforts to demonize the occupiers backfire, polls continue to show that Americans support the protesters and share their goals. The rest of us quickly cottoned on to the fact that the only people who are scared of the “violent mobs” at Occupy Wall Street are the people being paid to call them violent mobs.

Report from Occupy London in the Guardian.

Frye on Anarchism Coming Soon

The rise of the Occupy movement invites a consideration of Frye’s views on anarchism. I am putting together a comprehensive collection of quotes, which I will post soon.

But not before I post Joe Adamson’s essay, “On Relevance: Frye on Universities and the Deluge of Cant,” which will go up at midnight.

Péter Pásztor: “Translating Frye into Hungarian”

Paper read at the conference ‘Canada in Eight Tongues’ organized by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies and Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, October 21-22, 2011

More often than not, discussing Frye is a reward and treat. That I have been invited to speak to you about Frye among learned women and men of letters is also a great honour, which I worry I shall not be able to live up to. After all, I am just a practical translator, not one who can deliver gems of theory. Moreover, I have been an unfaithful Frygian, who now finds it difficult to pick up the thread. But perhaps some of my insights might be worthy of your attention.

I first heard Frye’s name from a professor I perhaps unfairly hated. He mentioned Frye as an example of mythopoeic understanding of American history, and, as I had already come to the sophomoric conclusion that history was a nightmare from which I was trying to awake, I thought I had no time for any concept embracing history, let alone a reductionist model of history. Then I remember desultorily picking up a copy of the TLS or the New York Review in the English department library in Debrecen and reading of a Canadian professor capable of making sense of the Bible in literary terms. I instantly knew this was something I had been looking for. I asked the librarian to order the book, which was rather unusual for a student and for such a subject matter at the time. This was in 1982-83, when, though rotted at the core, communism was still showing no sign of collapsing. For all I know, the request may have been conveniently forgotten. The book eventually got to me through the U.S. Presbyterian Reader Service about two years later, and it lived up to my best expectations.

I am a PK, a priest kid; I had gone to a protestant school founded in 1538, and, as a 16-year-old snob, I had tried reading my Milton in the original from a time-worn octavo in the reading room of the old library. I had a keen sense of my cultural tradition, but a likewise keen sense of the stuffiness of the church I was brought up in, being marred by teaching a compromise with communism and a hopelessly outdated, shallow piety. However stifling this illuminating-tradition-turned-ghetto seemed to me in the late 1970s, the Marxian stance of the immediate world outside, particularly its fresher, seemingly truer Lukácsian brand, could hardly have had a lasting attraction for me, not to mention the fact that it soon went down like ninepins. But the lacklustre anti-metaphysical attitudes it was leaving behind seemed to me unimaginative and bleak. What was cast out of official and semi-official intellectual inquiry most lured me – irrationalism, esotericism, and archaic modes of thought, identifying the accidents of our existence with myths and archetypes, as brilliantly expounded by Mircea Eliade, whom I later happened to not-so-accidentally translate. This was walking on thin ice because archetypal repetition, for all its spiritual imaginativeness, implies a necessity that leads to authoritarianism on the social plane – recall Eliade’s own Romanian Nazism. This is particularly dangerous in Central-East Europe where archaic attitudes were not naturally outgrown, but trampled underfoot by communism. Though I believe I was always aware of this danger, I was much in need of saving.

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Quote of the Day

The viral video that took the Occupy movement global: four terrified young women kettled on a public sidewalk, pepper-sprayed and left writhing in agony. Their assailant is NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna. He makes $154,000 a year. His punishment is to be docked 10 vacation days.

“At the Occupy Wall Street protests and their progeny across the country, protesters are using personal technology to document, broadcast and advertise police abuse like never before. Incidents of alleged police brutality are posted almost instantaneously. And nearly as fast come the ensuing campaigns to take the videos viral. Smartphones, laptops and tablet computers have in fact become so common at protests in the U.S. and elsewhere in recent years, it’s easy to lose sight of how revolutionary it all really is. But it is revolutionary: For the first time in human history, hundreds of millions of citizens around the world carry with them the ability to not only record footage of government abuse, but to distribute it globally in real time — in most cases, faster than governments, soldiers or cops can censor it.” — Radley Balco

More photos of Bologna in action at OWS here.

Frye at the Movies: “The Phantom of the Opera”

Full movie at this single link

It’s Halloween weekend, so here’s the original 1925 version of Phantom of the Opera, which haunted Frye as a child, and which he would have seen in one of the two movie theatres that still stand in Moncton.

Frye later acknowledged that the fascination of the film for him was his own childhood affinity for katabasis, or theme of descent. From Bob Denham’s Frye Unbuttoned:

Everybody has a fixation.  Mine has to do with meander-and-descent patterns. For years in my childhood I wanted to dig a cave & be the head of a society in it — this was before I read Tom Sawyer. All the things in literature that haunt me most have to do with katabasis. The movie that hit me hardest as a child was the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera. My main points of reference in literature are such things as The Tempest, P.R. [Paradise Regained], [Blake’s Milton], the Ancient Mariner, Alice in Wonderland, the Waste Land– every damn one a meander-&-katabasis work. (29)

Mallick: “Talking points for a young angry Occupy Toronto”

I’m just going to make it easy and reproduce Heather Mallick‘s column in full. The above clip from Occupy Toronto of young men and women articulating their concerns and priorities once again puts the lie to the conventional wisdom that they do not know what they’re doing or why.

The Occupy Toronto demonstrators don’t have a coherent point? How risible. Our economic system is so skewed that they have too many to articulate easily. Here’s a baker’s dozen to start:

1. You can’t get a degree without sinking into debt, or being told that your degree is worthless because it won’t get you hired, even though you know in your heart that a degree in anything, particularly history, will make you better able to understand, cope with, and vote against the life the 99-percenters are stuck with.

2. You can’t get a job, not one that sounds sane and pays. You want something between tree-planting or freelancing — ooh, you’re an entrepreneur, a sweatpanted typist without benefits — and a job for life.

I read, entranced, about veteran Toronto cop Const. Susan McConnell, who was charged with faking a medical note, getting a job at The Brick after getting the leave, crossing the border off-duty with her gun, getting drunk in public, and altering a salary letter for a mortgage. Demoted for 18 months, she is still a cop with an 11 per cent raise. So you could be a cop. Or you could work at The Brick. People always need furniture. Not at Occupy though. You don’t have furniture, you have tents. So go buy a new tent. There’s probably a sale on. Now Is the Discount of Our Winter Tents. If you got that reference, you have an arts degree, as do I, and I just bought a new coffee table.

3. The federal government is cutting jobs. They’re aiming at fields tracking complex things like ozone depletion or population. It means Canada will have a permanent footnote in the world league tables, *HICK. The clock will tick backward in ultra-conservative Harperland until we vote him out or it’s 1952 again and we are the Mississippi of nations, Mississippi being the state that always saves a grateful Lousiana from coming dead last.

4. Canada will not be attending Expo 2012 in Korea, no pavilion, no nothing, claiming it can’t afford it. What other nation isn’t attending? Greece. Heritage Canada says nobody notices us at these things anyway unless we have Cirque du Soleil. But everyone goes to Expos. It’s how countries get attention and their architects/designers/artists get international commissions. But Harper hates creative people and their show-offy foreign friends — he secretly suspects conventions are where people do the sex — so making other Canadians stay home and watchMurdoch Mysteries is a big win. It is not a CBC show.

5. The CBC is being chipped away by little hatchets. The much-loved CBC, dumbed down and Rex Murphy-ed as it may be, is our only true means of tracking our own country. Also, it might have hired you.

6. Mayor Rob Ford is sitting on Toronto. From transit to libraries to jobs, the man who screams at 911 operators is squishing the living breath out of us. Who is this ridiculous person and why isn’t he selling furniture? I hear there’s a vacancy at a The Brick in Barrie.

7. Retirement isn’t mandatory. Older people won’t leave their jobs to make room for the young. They sit at their desks voting down your pension rights and trying to stuff an entire egg salad sandwich in their mouth at one go, and then getting mad because they can’t get the hang of the neck scarf as worn by the young people, which is sad because it would be a really good look for them. They don’t get enraged at injustice, they just trail away into “the narcissism of minor differences,” as did that last sentence.

8. You have no voice. Nobody speaks for your generation. Take a good look at the newspaper columnists in this country. A bigger bunch of cranky Andy Rooneys you have never seen. Also they never admit that their mug shots are so heavily doctored that they’re unrecognizable in real life. I didn’t mess with mine but then I’m pretty spackled at the best of times.

9. You’ll never be able to vote online. It’s not going to happen. Young people are digitally connected and they won’t let you use that for power till maybe 2068.

10. WikiLeaks is dying from the financial blockade imposed by huge financial firms like Mastercard and Visa. Knowledge is power and you can’t have any. Money is power and you have none. Boycotts are difficult to organize. I would boycott Tim Hortons for one rural outlet’s alleged treatment of lesbians but they won’t miss me. I drink Red Bull full-time.

11. Ottawa — the government voted in by the Angry Pajamas bloc — is killing the Canadian Wheat Board, the national long-gun registry and your right to strike. I won’t get into why you’ll never own your own farm now. I’m just hoping you don’t get shot. But the subtext of all this is the move to destroy your right to do things in groups. Next up for death: parties, healing circles, twin-sets. And face it, Harperites don’t like people with breasts.

12. Sex will be riskier, you fertile youthful types. I don’t mean that you won’t have the means to support your children or a daycare to put them in even if you do. You won’t. I mean that abortion rights are on Harper’s list of To Go items. He has an anti-sex social agenda to mirror his economic one, and it’s pure Tea Party.

13. Never ever judge your moral worth by a dollar. No one is better than you because they earn soccer star salaries or work on Bay Street. You, young person, are lovely (I am whispering this in your personal ear). I’m with you.

And so I say, fight on, young people! Quebec, home of the École Polytechnique massacre, has just told Ottawa to get stuffed on the long-gun registry. Find the fierce prideful Quebec in you and never surrender.

Video of the Day: Scott Olsen Shot in the Face

It’s difficult to watch this video and not be angry. Scott Olsen is an Iraq war vet who did two tours of duty. As this video demonstrates, he appears to have been deliberately shot in the face with a tear gas canister by Oakland police. The people who were trying to rescue him were obviously the targets of a concussion grenade thrown by an identifiable police officer. Both of these assaults by police upon demonstrators were also clearly unprovoked. This is a reminder that the police and the officials responsible for them too often appear to behave like a praetorian guard rather than servants of the public as a whole. It is almost a guarantee that no police officer or public official will face any charges or even be held accountable for this incident. We see every day that this is not how it is done. It is, however, a guarantee that there will be a campaign to blame the protesters and even Olsen himself for the injuries he suffered. We see every day that this is how it is done.

Olsen is currently in hospital awaiting brain surgery.