Wednesday, January 28, 2015

J. Hillis Miller on the future of the profession

A spectacular example of this sort of thing is the State University at Albany where an administrator closed Jewish studies, French, German, and Russian studies. He just closed them arbitrarily because he had the power to do that and wanted to use the money otherwise. My advice to Albany—not to any of you, it’s your own business what you do—would have been to tell the English Department at Albany to take this as an opportunity to sit around together and concoct a new programme which would not be called the English Department but something like ‘Teaching How to Read Media’ or ‘Understanding Media’. This new department would include Film Studies and also include all those other language programs, so students could read literature and theory in the original. You’ve got to know German to read Heidegger or Adorno properly, French to read Derrida or Baudrillard. So rescue the languages as part of this programme! I don’t know whether it would work. You could at least try. You could say, ‘We’re teaching students essential skills in how to live in this world of new media. We’re teaching them how to read television ads and political ads and not to be so bamboozled so easily by the lies they tell’. Television ads have a complex rhetoric, which I have begun to study. At Lancaster I gave one example. In the United States NBC Television News shows every night over and over again from night to night an ad sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute. The speaker on the screen is not an oil tycoon, the people who are making billions. It’s a very charming young woman. She comes out on the screen, accompanied by brilliant graphics, and says ‘I have good news for you. We have enough oil and gas, especially if we accelerate fracking (which is the extraction of gas from shale), to last for another 100 years. We’ll produce millions of jobs. This is the solution’. What she doesn’t say of course is that fracking will accelerate climate change and pollute the ground water where fracking is done. There soon won’t be any New York City left, not to speak of my house in Deer Isle Maine, or most of Florida. So, it’s a lie, the ad is a lie, a gross lie. But it’s very persuasive. The speaker is a woman, an attractive woman, persuasive, a very good actress. The argument is not made by the actual people who are doing this fracking. Sometimes such ads show bearded intellectual-looking engineers doing some of the talking. They too are part of our ideology of the good guys.

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