Monday, April 5, 2010

On Myths of the English Degree & Myths in General

Recently I was asked to give a talk to English majors at Loyola about what they can "do" with an English degree. The poster for the event suggested that I would help to "debunk" English degree myths. I used this as a jumping off point for my talk, which is here:


I was surprised to see on the poster for this event that it would debunk the “myths of the English degree”—but this got me thinking about my presentation tonight, in which I will suggest a kind of inverted relationship to this standard notion about earning an English degree, and that there are ‘myths’ peculiar to it as a field of study. In short, this is my thesis: it is not the “myths of the English degree” that we should worry about; rather, what we need to think about carefully and critically is the strange way that being an English major seems to produce a unique sort of ontological anxiety: What does it mean to ‘be’ an English major? What will I ‘do’ with the English degree? How useful—or, what I really fear, useless—is this degree? How will I know if I am using my English degree to have a meaningful life?

These types of questions haunt the English major in a distinct way—well, along with the philosophy major, perhaps. Think of Sofia Coppola’s joke about this in her film Lost In Translation, when the bored and aimless Scarlett Johansson explains to Bill Murray that she was a philosophy major, and he says, sarcastically, “I hear there’s a real racket in that.” Or, as another example, in my very first college English class, the professor stood in the front of the class and said “People will always ask you what you can do with an English degree. Here’s what to say: Tell them you can do anything with an English degree.” I don’t remember if that inspired me, or if I thought it was bullshit—but now, at some remove, I wonder why my professor started a Great Books course on this weirdly anxious occupational note? Did this really assist us in our readings of ancient Greek epics and tragedies? Why do we feel the need to carry around these fears of “what we are going to do” after college? And can we dispel such fears at an event such as this one?

Here is part of the problem: it is so ingrained in our culture to think that earning an English or a philosophy degree is a deficiency, a kind of booby prize in the collegiate competition that should result in a buttoned-down practicality called ‘real life’. Or, such degrees are only for misanthropes and agitators—these worries are so culturally ingrained that one finds it difficult to speak concretely about how this problem arises in the first place, not to mention what to do about it.

My hunch is that the “myths of the English degree” are in fact not the myths we need to fixate on. These very myths might even serve a hyper-real function in the first place. Allow me to explain what I mean by this statement, that the “myths of the English degree” function as a hyper-reality.

In his book Simulacra and Simulation, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has a brilliant argument about Disneyland, in which he suggests that while we think we know that Disneyland is a fake place, and thereby we can appreciate the reality of society outside the theme park, it is actually something like the reverse that is true. Baudrillard points out that all the processes and experiences of Disneyland are really very familiar to daily life: in the theme park, you purchase tickets to participate in certain events, you stand in line to wait for rides, you interact with people in absurd costumes, and you abide by basic geographic sensibilities that assure you that the rules of Disneyland rely on certain physical boundaries and topographical features (think of Space Mountain, or a plastic “wild river” rapid). While these experiences may be exaggerated in the setting of the theme park, they in fact mimic parts of everyday life: we drive around in cars called the Honda Odyssey, the Ford Focus, or the Toyota Matrix; we wait in line at Starbucks to use a clever credit card to buy a personalized, frothy drink; the person behind the counter at Starbucks wears a little outfit that assures us that we are in a special place, experiencing something real, Italian; we abide by the rules of grassy lawns and sidewalks, overpasses and “scenic views.” Baudrillard argues that whereas we commonly think of Disneyland as fake, and as opposed to the rest of the real world, it would more accurate to say that Disneyland functions as a “hyper-real” site: it is just like the ‘real world’, and even more so, by consolidating everything we know from daily life, and presenting it to us in embellished form. In other words, we require the allegedly fake ridiculousness of Disneyland so that we do not question the ridiculousness of the things and processes in so-called ‘real life’. The myths of Disneyland reproduce and reflect the myths of real life, such that it is incorrect to think that Disneyland is fake: rather, Disneyland is the realm of the hyper-real—it is all the more real because it shows us the reality we’ve constructed around us.

I want to make an analogous claim about the “myths of the English degree.” When people talk in nervous or vapid ways about the English degree, and what you can or cannot ‘do’ with it, they are really articulating a far more widespread anxiety about the possibilities and limits of life in general. The myths of the English degree are the myths of life: that you have to ‘do’ something that you have planned out beforehand; that you have to have certain credentials to act certain ways; that if you don’t know what to do, you will become lost or be a deadbeat, like Jeff Bridges’ “Dude” in The Big Lebowski; that if you ask questions of life, or want to be “different,” you will end up like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, having a sordid affair and pissing off your parents. These are some myths in circulation, and they all seem to converge mythically around earning an English degree, and knowing what you are supposed to do with one.

So let’s get to practical matters: at the end of my theorizing, what can you really do with an English degree? Well, this is precisely where theory meets practice: as an English major, you can learn to read well, and think clearly, even when you are confused by the stuff of life. (And in my experience, the more I read and the more I think, the more confusing it all seems.) Luckily, the training you get on the way to an English degree includes reading and thinking about myths. When you seem to encounter mythical territory concerning your major, see what psychological terrain it is reflecting around other degrees, or other ways of life. You really don’t have to worry about what “dream job” you will have, or what your “true calling” in life is: for those are major myths, and ones worth jettisoning or putting in brackets as soon as possible. You might have many jobs in your life, or you may find something that sustains your lifestyle and is tolerable—that can be enough. You may also land a job that is very fulfilling, but this will not keep the myths of life at bay: remember, there are next year’s models of cars to worry about, what you should or should not smell like, where to go on vacation, and what to do when you get there—ironically, the more settled in a job you become, the more myths will present themselves to you in the form of consumer demands. But again, here’s where your English degree can help: read the myths trafficking around you, think about just how mythical they are, and feel unsettled by this vast fiction that we are a part of. I am not advocating nihilism here, but rather suggesting the creative potential that we have as human beings—and urging you to participate in the creativity, as readers, and as writers who write the world. Again: it is not the “myths of the English degree” that you need to worry about—it is the myths of life, all the demands and stresses and pressures that you feel, the unanswered questions that you think you have to answer now...that vague sense that brought you here, tonight. Studying language and literature, we can learn to think about life’s myths, and we can talk & write about these myths clearly, analytically, & poetically—that’s what we can do, and frankly, I find it to be a real relief.