Nov 19, 2009
I was having dinner with a bunch of friends in a house where I had formerly lived in Cambridge.
It was a fairly typical evening for me back then (in the pre-kids era), partying and having hyper-educated goofball conversations with my fellow academics: the doctor of English; the doctor of American Studies; the doctor of Religious Studies; the precocious undergrad, etc.
What made this night unlike any other night was the presence of a traveling scholar, who I believe was a friend of my ex-roommate, Tom. This fellow was doing research at Harvard’s Law School and he had made his bones working on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
I remember sitting around the table and having a dumb argument about Madonna and Cher, or something like that, and it struck me that this fellow must think we’re absolutely retarded. Products of America’s finest schools and representatives of the prosperous American Middle Class (and, we might as well say it, American Upper Class), and here we sit, indulging in mindless cocktail banter and busying ourselves with the abstruser angles of cultural studies while other people (him, specifically), were focused on things like creating an equitable judicial process to promote reconciliation in a society ravaged by genocide.
Of course, this fellow was neither self-righteous nor confrontational and the disdain I had imputed to him was but the projection of my own intellectual self-hatred. I had devoted my 20s to earning a PhD in German Studies writing papers on Batman, the Nazis, Hans Holbein the Younger, Charles Manson, Goethe, etc., and, although I thoroughly enjoyed myself, had never been able to shake the feeling that studying history and literature, film and philosophy, was a bourgeois indulgence that served no purpose other than vanity, at its best, and the highly refined reinforcement of dominant norms and ideologies at its worst. (That last part is particularly ironic for me, given the popular view of academia as the royal roost of tenured radicals.)
“How,” you may ask, “could you have spent seven years doing something most people don’t spend one second doing when you thought that it was a bogus privilege, a trivial pursuit?”
Image Courtesy of rogiro.