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The humanities and Artisanal education: technocrats and artisans in the contemporary university.

This essay is an exploration of the ways in which the practices of the arts and humanities have been understood through craft and play. It argues for a historical understanding of quality mass higher education as a postwar phenomenon and offers a critique of technological solutions to the dilemma of providing quality higher education. Through a series of close readings of literary, cinematic, and sculptural objects and texts, this article looks at reactionary and progressive meditations on the temporality of craftsmanship. It explores the work of D. W. Winnicott, Martha Nussbaum, Christopher Newfield, Philip Roth, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Ann Agee.


The economic crisis of 2008 threw university budgets, public and private, into disarray: endowments shriveled, state budgets and tax bases shrank. While administrators were told to cut corners, increase class sizes, and shrink payroll in order "to do more with less," students felt pressure to choose more "practical" majors. Sensing an opportunity to "disrupt" one of the most globally popular post-war US industries, the stalking horses of venture capitalism disguised as philanthropists and "visionaries" readied themselves for an attack on yet another moribund redoubt of the post-World War II growth sectors--higher education with its protective coating of white collar professionalism and peer-review guarantee of academic freedom. Even as professors and graduate students complain about the trouble in paradise, a siege mentality has set in where internally generated critiques are viewed with panic while attacks from outside the realm are parried with nostalgia for a past when people read books and students paid attention. While we may be tempted to map the crisis of the humanities as a problem of cultural authority disrupted, its uneasy place within the twenty-first-century university is better understood as a function of an adjustment in the very conception of higher education itself, which is no longer the privileged post-World War II site of the dissemination of mass produced quality and sensibility-or as Mark McGurl has called it, "lower middle class modernism" (2009, 68). Instead, it is a place where the post-Fordist workforce trains and retrains itself to be flexible, entrepreneurial, and "creative."

In an important companion history to McGurl's (2009) account of creative writing, Howard Singerman (1999) traces the incorporation of a creative and fine arts degree, the MFA, into the curriculum of the twentieth-century US university. Both McGurl and Singerman outline the academic attempts to conceptualize the teaching of creative writing and fine arts within expanding and expansive degree granting institutions of the postwar era. Singerman and McGurl lay out the consequences of a postwar boom in higher education that brought humanities, arts and liberal education to a mass middle class: the Cold War gave French and German a patina of glamor while the support of aesthetic autonomy could still be allied with political progress. Christopher Newfield (2004) argues that the postwar economic and corporate, technocratic boom expanded access to the values of "disinterestedness" and aesthetic experience made available to unprecedented numbers of Americans.

Whereas late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth-century American businessmen and university administrators viewed public and private investment in education as compatible with economic growth and industrialization, early-twenty-first-century entrepreneurs and policy makers view education as a new source of profits for private companies who want to funnel public money into private coffers. Joel Spring argues that corporatism, or a fusion if not convergence of government and corporate interests, threatens academic autonomy and educational integrity. To prove his point he uses New York City as a case study in corporatism and profit extraction in the name of educational reform. Spring's research is invaluable and provides incontrovertible evidence that "educational corporatism is driven by a desire for profits by ICT [information and communication technologies] companies and educational entrepreneurs" (2012, 2). Furthermore, the databasing of the curriculum and the student body itself allows for increased capacities for censorship and surveillance on the part of global elites. Today's educational policies and big ideas have been promoted by a variety of actors and players with little to no experience in education itself. Michael Bloomberg's appointment of Joel Klein, former Bertelsmann lawyer, as Chancellor of New York City public schools is but one example of a business managerial ethos in educational policy that dismisses experience and public accountability in favor of the kinds of forward thinking leadership that results in massive investment in classroom technologies while public school teachers are laid off or furloughed. As Spring recounts, "Klein contracted with the company Wireless Generation to use their data collection and analysis program Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS)" (2014, 34). Klein left the NYC public school system to join Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which "bought 90 percent of Wireless Generation" (Spring 2012, 6). Klein is a textbook example of what Janine Wedel (2011) in her study of government/ private industry actors calls the shadow elite's most effective agent: the "flexian"--an entrepreneurial, flexible manager able to move effortlessly from corporation to state bureaucracy and back to corporation again, all the while increasing his or her personal power in the social networks run through the World Economic Forum and its global counterparts. The flexian relies on his or her "flex net," characterized by the privatization of information, "shared conviction and action," and "shifting roles and representations" in NGO, foundation, government and corporate settings. Not surprisingly, global education leaders espouse ideas emphasized by the World Economic Forum: they believe that education should produce entrepreneurs who in turn produce economic growth while they advocate for information and communication technologies as "a panacea for global problems" (Spring 2012, 24).

Spring sees the new corporatism as solely motivated by data-driven forms of work process rationalization, which like earlier phases of industrialization has led to deskilling of workers. For Christopher Newfield, however, corporate capitalism has been highly creative in taking charge of large and complex organizations: the managerial ethos does not necessarily have to undermine the autonomy of workers (Newfield 2004). It is an aberrational drive to commercialize education that has led to the present crisis. According to Newfield, humanists must learn to defend their work against corporate managerial style because corporations also long to do good and to be good. However the problem is framed, we are left with the question of how can we reconcile the time of the corporation and the large organization with the values (problematic as they may be) of the craftsman working alone in his studio? The craftsman's relationship to time and process is distinguished by absorption, repetition, intuition, and mastery. Craft skill implies a set of capacities that are resistant to the passage of time, but the transmission, communication and preservation of craft skill is a remarkably fragile and unpredictable process. Universities and institutions of mass education have for better or worse tried to rationalize, standardize, and streamline both the preservation and the communication of critical forms of tacit knowledge.

Craft and craftsmanship have been used to describe the kinds of work resistant to reduction to the profit motive. The engaged artisan creates value that exceeds automated processes. In an article for Inside Higher Ed, Karen Lawrence, the President of Sarah Lawrence, an elite liberal arts college just outside of New York City, described the value of Sarah Lawrence's education as "priceless" (2011). In 2011, tuition and room and board at Sarah Lawrence College would have set you back $58,716, making it the most expensive four year college of that year. The cost of tuition at private liberal arts colleges has never been higher but demand for admission to these schools also remains high. Karen Lawrence is certainly correct to contrast the handcrafted, artisanal aspect of a Sarah Lawrence education to the assembly line products that we might encounter at a large public research university like UC Irvine where she served as Dean of the School of Humanities for eight years before moving into the private sector. (1) She went on to insist that the college holds its faculty to the very highest standards in teaching: in her words, "we maintain these standards because we believe the customized, 'handcrafted' education we provide helps ensure that each student achieves his or her greatest potential. Like anything else handcrafted, artisanally sourced education is significantly more cost-intensive, and thus more costly, than what's produced on an assembly line" (2011). Lawrence is making a comparison between the quality of the education that Sarah Lawrence provides and the quality of education that mass produced education provides. For true aficionados of fashion, haute couture and pret-a porter are incomparable: craftsmanship distinguishes the creativity and authenticity of Chloe from the T-shirts hastily sewn together in sweatshops and sold for a few dollars at Target or H&M. The handcrafted college class is priceless because it is conceived and executed without the pressures of efficiency and standardization that characterize industrial production and mass education. According to its website, Sarah Lawrence College enrolls 1,300 undergraduates and 340 graduate students. The University of California system enrolls 234,464 students and counts over 1.6 million living alumni. Led by Clark Kerr and optimistic technocrats who believed in delivering quality education at scale, the postwar expansion of the UC system benefited from the G. I. Bill and Cold War panics regarding education (Sputnik) and embodied pre-Vietnam War ideals about the university without the military industrial complex.

The post-Cold War landscape has presented both the university and the liberal arts college with new challenges: as economic polarization continues apace, the future of the humanities seems to lie in its ability to transform itself into a luxury good savored by a small slice of global elites, a minority of a minority, whose consumption habits are nevertheless admired as vanguardist and exemplary. (2) The romance with the local and the artisanal rehearses twentieth-century anxiety about all things mass-produced and mass-marketed. Although McGurl (2009) and Singerman (1999) demonstrate that mass higher education created a standardized form of creative activity both in and outside of twentieth-century classrooms, the presence of the singular hand as metonym for a unique and individual human agent remains absolutely key in the creation of luxury brands and niche markets.

This paper tries to assess different accounts of craft value as displayed in the work of Richard Sennett, Martha Nussbaum, Matthew Crawford, and Chris Newfield. Setting this struggle for craftsmanship in the vexed world of professionalism, white collar work, and corporate downsizing, I hope to show that the return to craftsmanship is also an abiding preoccupation of contemporary artists, filmmakers, and novelists. I will perform the exemplary academic exercise of close reading while working through an interdisciplinary analysis by demonstrating that Philip Roth's novel American Pastoral (1998), Hou Hsiao-hsien's film Flight of the Red Balloon (Le voyage du ballon rouge; 2008), and Ann Agee's ceramic sculptures each offer a theory of craft and work that will expand the historical, conceptual, visual, and mediatic readings of endangered artisanal labor in a political/economic/managerial context. All three of these narrative, cinematic, and plastic artworks deal with a rift at the heart of the craft process: in doing so, I hope to show that the craft defense of the humanities, with its theoretical revalorization of craftsmanship and the craftsman, can address the political/aesthetic crisis of twenty-first-century capitalism if it takes seriously the language, design, and management of labor processes in the contemporary world. In almost all of the accounts of work listed above, the artisan or craftsman emerges as exemplary worker, spurred on by what Thorstein Veblen called a thirst for "effective work and a distaste for futile effort" (2007, 16). My analysis tries to offer a political and historical materialist account of the ways in which debates about higher education are evolving.

In contrast to Karen Lawrence, presidents of public universities have not been able to be so sanguine in the face of growing demand, shrinking state support, and rising tuition. Business leaders and state legislators all agree that higher education is over-priced and wasteful: we should be able to disrupt the diploma mills by delivering quality educational experiences through new technologies and media. Business leaders and entrepreneurs have been especially vocal in their denunciation of our collective capitulation before what Tressie Cottom McMillan has called "the prestige cartel" of credential-granting not-for-profit universities (McMillan and Bady 2013). Anthony Grafton's (2013) review of William J. Bennett and Jeffrey Selingo's books assessing the state of higher education in the United States notes that both conservative and liberal critics of the American university find that the institution is on a path toward self-destruction, in part because of unsustainable financial models. Forward-thinking administrators and professors at Stanford, Harvard, and MIT appeared to have found a technological solution to the crisis of higher education in the creation of MOOCs or Massively Open Online Courses. When Sebastian Thrun offered his Stanford course on Artificial Intelligence as a MOOC it was taken by over 160,000 students, initiating the newest phase of online education based in the Ivory Tower. For-profit universities like the University of Phoenix had been offering online classes with a very low bar for admissions for more than a decade, but the model of providing free or low-cost online higher education created in elite universities and available to all comers with good Internet connections has appeared irresistibly attractive to venture capitalists and restless administrators. As Nathan Heller reports in The New Yorker in May 2013:

MOOCs are thought to be enticing business opportunities. Last year, two major MOOC producers launched as for-profit companies. Today, amid a growing constellation of online-education providers, they act as go-betweens, packaging university courses and offering them to students and other schools. Coursera, a Stanford spinoff that is currently the largest MOOC producer, serves classes from Brown, Caltech, Princeton, Stanford, and sixty-five other schools; Udacity, also the progeny of Palo Alto, focuses on tech and science. Last May, with twin pledges of thirty million dollars, Harvard and MIT jointly founded edX, a nonprofit MOOC company that works with a dozen colleges and universities, including UC Berkeley and Rice. EdX is organized as a confederation, with each member institution maintaining sovereignty over its MOOC production; Harvard's line is called HarvardX. (Heller 2013)

John Hennessy, President of Stanford, argues that we may not as a nation be able to afford all the research universities we have today: MOOCs will allow the research leaders or the elite universities to consolidate their domination of the field and less "well-funded schools" will be "stripped down and stream lined" (quoted in Heller 2013). While administrators at less privileged schools have embraced this new division of labor, faculty have not been supine. San Jose State philosophy professors published an open letter to Michael Sandel after the California State University system purchased a suite of online courses from the aforementioned edX, including Sandel's famous course now rendered online as JusticeX. The philosophy professors explicitly denounced the Hennessy position: they write that "we believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the US education system in general, and our own California State University system in particular" (San Jose State University Philosophy Department 2013). The purchase of these courses from edX happened with little faculty consultation. According to the SJSU letter, Anat Agarwal, MIT Electrical Engineering Professor and President of edX, dismissed professors "pontificating" and "spouting content" ten times at a press conference announcing the introduction of edX courses at San Jose State. In spring 2013, Amherst College faculty voted to reject edX's invitation to participate in its brand of MOOC production (Kolowich 2013).

Doug Henwood's description of the antagonism between the financial, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sectors and the professional managerial class (PMC) is useful to raise here as a structuring condition of the conflict between business interests and academia over the future of higher education. Although the middle class uniformly values higher education, it has seen its ability to foot the bill for its children undermined by wage depression and white collar downsizing. As a class, its expertise and experience have been devalued in the name of flexibility and competition. FIRE would like to see a reorganization of the PMC. (3) Universities, however, are notoriously slow-moving organizations: resistance has come from many quarters. Aggressive attempts to remake higher education and universities will have to be relentless and bold and extremely well funded. The instrumentalization of all aspects of education appears increasingly attractive, however, to the economically insecure.

Gary King, director of Harvard's Institute for Quantitative Social Science, argues that when he turned his class listservs into searchable databases he demonstrated that online education is more than just a "dissemination method" but is a precious data-gathering resource (Heller 2013). Traditionally, it has been hard to assess and compare how well different teaching approaches work. King explained that this could change online through "large-scale measurement and analysis," often known as big data. He said, "we could do this at Harvard. We could not only innovate in our own classes--which is what we're doing--but we could instrument every student, every classroom, every administrative office, every house, every recreational activity, every security officer, everything. We could basically get the information about everything that goes on here, and we could use it for the students" (Heller 2013). Geoffrey Bowker had earlier argued that computers promised a "new regime for holding and shaping past experience," which "has developed through a process that I call databasing the world" (Bowker 2007, 22).

It seems all the more apt that Joel Spring appliesjanine Wedel's theory of shadow government and shadow elites to the education industry (Spring 2012; Wedel 2011). Spring traces the network of public/private players who have made a fetish out of technology and data collection as the two-pronged solution to the crisis of education and access in the contemporary United States. Spring argues that the "database of the world" has enlarged the powers of a shadow elite especially in the sphere of public education, where reform movements are driven by powerful actors networked into a global elite. These players, like Sebastian Thrun and Anat Agarwal, move with ease between the spheres of government, venture capital, think tanks, private foundations, and corporations. Business elites and their partners in educational administration have worked out an allegedly global consensus that networked computing will solve pedagogical and social problems. Private foundations have played a critical role in shaping ideas about policy and rewarding those who toe the line or add their voices to what the Chronicle of Higher Education has called "the echo chamber" created by Gates funding. A series of articles in the Chronicle document the "Gates Effect," the way in which private philanthropy has been driving public policymaking at all levels of US education. It is not surprising that the Gates agenda is pushing hard for online education: in 2012, the Gates Foundation hired Dan Greenstein from the University of California system as director of its Post-secondary Success Strategy arm. At UC, Greenstein was the Vice Provost of Academic Planning, Programs, and Coordination for the entire system. A strong proponent of UC's move to online education, Greenstein met with a great deal of resistance from the Faculty Senate. For his fealty, he was rewarded with a private foundation position at Gates (Perry, Field, and Supiano 2013).

The MIT Media Fab where Henry Jenkins taught for many years became a widely-imitated model of academic/corporate collaboration: Jenkins's techno-optimism and fan enthusiasm are appealing. In Convergence Culture, he admits to being a fan and a scholar as well as being an active participant in discussions among industry insiders and policymakers: I have consulted with some of the companies discussed in this book; my earlier writings on fan communities and participatory culture have been embraced by business schools.... Many of the creative artists and media executives I interviewed are people I would consider friends. At a time when roles between producers and consumers are shifting, my job allows me to move among different vantage points. I hope this book allows readers to benefit from my adventures into spaces where few humanists have gone before. (Jenkins 2007,12-13)

Jenkins refers to himself in an ironic rhetorical gesture as an intrepid geeky explorer, styled after the captain and crew of the starship Enterprise, making warp speeds between Ivory Towers and luxurious boardrooms. He endorses a kind of techno-populism that has permeated academic/ industry interfaces and collaborations of the past two decades. Jenkins alleges that flexible forms of popular cultural practice and participation produced from the bottom up make it ever more difficult for intellectuals to argue along the lines of liberal rationality and public goods. Popular culture has in a sense taken over the space of reason and feeling that was once occupied by the humanities. Humanities as a set of disciplines has become increasingly professionalized and rationalized: it has distanced itself from popular culture and the new technologies that have allowed ordinary people to join knowledge communities. The fan is not the solitary, sentimental reader and the professor is not the primary source of knowledge about reading and analyzing culture. In Jenkins's account of the fan and spoiler communities that emerged around the reality television show Survivor, he describes the ways in which on-line discussions emerged that "enmeshed" participants in "philosophical debates about the nature of truth. Think of such debates as exercises in popular epistemology" (Jenkins 2007, 44).


Recent paeans to craftsmanship include Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (2010) and Richard Sennett's book The Craftsman (2008), which describes the force and power of the human hand and the master's memory in creating inimitable products like the Stradivarius violin. For Sennett, the craftsman represents a corporeal and almost encyclopedic repository of "tacit knowledge" (2008, 120). Crawford's book is an autobiographical account of his abandonment of a fancy Washington, DC think-tank job to follow his bliss as a high-end motorcycle repairman. Crawford's think-tank job paid him to distort the truth: motorcycle repair brought him back in touch with the stakes of doing a job by hand and doing it well. Christopher Newfield has also used craft to defend the practices of the humanities in the modern university: the craft impulse is, according to his account, not at all at odds with good management and corporatism (Newfield 2004). Both Richard Sennett and Christopher Newfield believe in the redemptive powers of craft knowledge. Newfield insists that the middle class embodies a powerful commitment to both craftsmanship and good management; Sennett's theory of craftsmanship identifies it as a powerful form of tacit knowledge. According to Sennett, the craftsman is driven and shaped by an infinitely engaging dialogue with the material world (Sennett 2008, 120). Both Sennett and Newfield would agree that meaningful human activity and authentic human agency are defined by a craft impulse, or a quasi-anthropological, autotelic drive to do something very, very well. For James Livingston, this sort of idealization of craft would fall in line with the "artisanal longing" animating the work of Sennett and Newfield. For Livingston, gushing over craftsmanship and craft skill is an inadequate critique of universal commercialization and a denial of John Dewey's conception of industrial democracy (Livingston 2008).

In her defense of the social value of the humanities, Martha Nussbaum introduces two other terms, "care" and "play," to explain the critical necessity of the humanities for a vibrant democratic culture. In Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum expands upon her specialized philosophical work on care and ethics in order to make a "public" intervention on the question of humanities education. Drawing upon Rabindranath Tagore and John Dewey, Nussbaum restates long-held beliefs about the moral refashioning a good education can provide. Like her Progressive Era forebears, Nussbaum believes that education for "sympathy" can reform the psychological roots of intolerance and sadism. Against what she calls "education for growth" she opposes education for human development: "For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore inequality" (Nussbaum 2010, 23). The educated citizen that she is trying to build does not defer to either tradition or authority. On the one hand, Nussbaum seems blissfully unaware that the kind of education she is describing is alive and well and needs no defending in the world of private schools to which she refers in her acknowledgements. On the other hand, she seems blithely unaware that the Indian education for growth model where "passive learning" and force-feeding for "standardized national exams" has been promoted in the US by the policies of two administrations in the forms of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. In fact, this sympathetic, playful, tolerant citizen-student, ready to shine her empathy light on others would seem uniquely ill-equipped to face the ruthlessness of education policy makers and global capital's most effective players in transforming education into a field not for national economic growth (as Nussbaum alleges our philistine business adversaries are aiming at), but for private and personal profit. As GDP and GNP rise in countries like China and India, the education for economic growth model seems more, not less, compelling to countries struggling to lift large groups of people out of poverty. Nussbaum ignores a certain piece of history that Christopher Newfield has been working to recover for historians, theorists, and policy makers alike. He reminds us over and over again that the American research university was both dependent upon and compatible with business/growth models (Newfield 2004, 29-30). Nussbaum's arguments are short on historical and material substance and cannot address the aggression of business interests in their interventions in the world of higher education. Although Nussbaum makes some gestures toward the social world and the family, she places the burden of transformation on a highly idealized idea of schooling: in school, the individual is expected to be able to amplify and expand upon her emotional and imaginative resources.

Nussbaum's emphasis on the importance of play, however, is worthy of further consideration. Nussbaum claims that "play teaches people to be capable of living with others without control" (2010,101). The space of play is critical for children in building trust about the fundamental durability of the trust and continuity of the world: she uses Winnicott's theory of the "good enough mother" as a framework for understanding both play and trust. Winnicott's theories demonstrate the importance of stability and consistency in infant and childhood development without making a fetish of obsessive and anxious maternal attention. In fact, Winnicott insists upon the critical importance of maternal distraction in the infant/mother bond. The mother's ability to hold the baby while doing something else allows for the growing child to construct transitional objects in his or her fantasy life that will ease the terrifying dependency characteristic of early infant experience. Furthermore, the mother's capacity for absorption in other tasks models a relationship to the outside world that allows for the child to imagine powerful bonds outside the parent/child duo (Winnicott 1992, 53-59, 217-45). Winnicott's theories of intersubjectivity affirmed both amplification of time and the positive meaning of continuity, boredom and temporal lassitude in the elaboration and communication of his patients' fantasies. Winnicott's ideas about the "good enough mother" and the virtues of her physical and psychological ability "to hold" and to survive the radical vacillations of infantile bipolarity led him to emphasize play and continuity in his theory of the psyche. Only when the infant learns to trust her environment can her playfulness emerge.

While the classical division of labor between mental and physical activities has been complicated by the realm of service/affectual work, we cannot deny that a tendency to promote deskilling, disguised as "disruption and streamlining," has gripped the imagination of the global business elite. Profit extraction in its most primitive form takes place as exploitation and the production of surplus value: this surplus value can be produced by wage compression. Thomas Piketty has described this struggle in a deceptively simple formula: rent or interest (R)--profit roughly described--is in competition with growth (G)--wage labor. R struggles to be greater than G. Profits that add to R can be extracted in various ways, but the most effective and primitive is simply the reduction of wages. The compression of wage labor (G) takes place in two ways: (i) increased efficiency in the labor process, and (2) reduction in wages. Technology has led to increased efficiencies across the field of labor: the most efficient and technologically advanced factory floors no longer teem with human beings. The cathedrals of labor in which the bosses had inadvertently made visible to one another the sheer number of human bodies necessary to make things are designed to shed workers and incorporate technologies. Certain things must still be made by hand, but the work of the hand in mass industrial production is increasingly simplified or routinized, broken down to its simplest components by the engineer, the coder, the black boxed design (Piketty 2014, 199-236). Marx's theory of surplus value and labor laid the groundwork for his thesis on revolution: the owners of the means of production would like to pay their workers as little as possible in order to get as much profit from labor power as they can. Even though the creativity of finance capital and the rise of white collar work along with technological advances have shaken Marx's theory of exploitation and profit, the struggle to compress wages while spurring consumption has put ordinary people, that is ordinary workers, in a terrible dilemma. When Harry Braverman wrote Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century in the early 1970s, he insisted that "deskilling" of workers was not an inevitable development of technological progress but a managerial weapon wielded ruthlessly by capitalism in its war against workers (Braverman 1998, 117-26). "Deskilling" is a double edged sword: on the one hand it degrades work, on the other hand it degrades consumption.

Institutional inertia and the dangers of groupthink worried American business leaders during the Golden Age of Liberal Corporatism. By the 1980s, with profits shrinking and global companies challenging US manufacturing and design power, "re-engineering" laid the ground work for continued organizational disruption well into the twenty-first century. The drive for "disruption" is a drive for the "new" and although its ethos may be based upon flawed management philosophies and business histories, its message regarding technology and large organizations is telegraphed from Harvard Business School to Davos and state legislatures and stock analysts and back again: nothing can remain the same. Although Clayton Christensen's book The Innovators Dilemma was published during the crest of the first dot com bubble, its wisdom is accepted as a historical dogma at posh corporate retreats all over the world. For Christensen, innovation always trumps continuity: the accelerating velocity of history leaves most people behind. Those who adapt to and adopt the new are successful. Those bound by tradition and historicity are doomed (Christensen 1997). Jill Lepore's brutal takedown of Christensen in the New Yorker will probably do little to dent his reputation among the distracted business leaders who hobnob at Davos. Despite the opportunistic banality of Christensen's theories of disruption, our conception of the humanities and the arts seems in dire need of reinvention if not reform. The fault may lie in austerity budgets, but a portion of responsibility can be laid at the feet of a professoriate too interested in defending its own interests against the real economic, social and technological changes that are taking place around us.

For some academics like Toby Miller, we should be welcoming and even encouraging the decline of the humanities. Miller's latest book, Blow Up the Humanities, calls for their destruction in favor of a pragmatic, media-based, communications oriented education. Miller's position is a hectoring wake-up call to academics in denial of the new realities of work and consumption. While I sympathize with his critique of the academic insularity of English departments, his dismissal of historical knowledge and the infrastructure necessary to maintain and support historical research is extremely distressing. In the post-Cold War world, the humanities, like the American middle class, may be one victim among many of the entrepreneurial demiurge; if we are to defend the legacy of the humanities and the mass middle class with which it has been associated, we must come up with less moralizing and pedantic formulae to describe its social, cultural, and intellectual value. We should not be afraid to pose hard questions: it is quite possible that like creative writing and the MFA in fine arts, the humanities is so deeply connected as a set of practices and disciplines to a historical period whose demise signals the eclipse of a powerful social and collective fantasy. If it is indeed to be historicized as a relic from another age, the energies that animated its institutionalization will be migrating elsewhere: the human instinct for play, collaboration, and craftsmanship is difficult to destroy.


David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, Theodor Adorno, and Richard Hofstadter looked upon the American entrepreneur/craftsman with different degrees of nostalgia. In Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Lou and Seymour are fictionalized versions of this mythical character. Lou Levov worked his way up from the putrid Newark tanneries of the early twentieth century to become owner of Newark Maid, a glove-making company that paid for his son's American pastoral. Lou began working with animal hides in conditions where workers were "driven like animals through the laborious storm that was a twelve-hour shift--a filthy stinking place awash with water dyed red and black and blue and green with hunks of skin all over the floor, everywhere pits of grease, hills of salt, barrels of solvent--this was Lou Levov's high school and college" (Roth 1998, 12). Lou Levov gets his degree in every single stage of glove making, from the skinning of animals to the tanning of hides. In fact, Lou never quite leaves the cloacal cave that is his pitiless schoolroom. The rage and energy that propels him forward is fed by his having been reduced to little more than a beast during his youth in the Newark tanneries. By his twenties he founds Newark Maid, a small glove-making company that is catapulted into prosperity in 1942 when he receives a commission from the military corps for women's uniform dress gloves. His son, Seymour, known as "the Swede," sacrifices himself at the altar of his father's love of this family business but in doing so becomes a millionaire in love with America, its promise of physical ease and beauty that is consummated in the Swede's own Apollonian grace. The Swede is a natural athlete and legendary figure in Nathan Zuckerman's high School. For a Jewish community that worships educational achievement and abhors the abuse of physical strength and violence, the Swede is the natural aristocrat but also an aberration. He is blessed with an almost pagan gift of athletic prowess and Nordic good looks: he accepts his community's idolatry with a kind of quiet stoicism. At the end of World War II, Seymour Levov is the living incarnation of American valor for Weequahic High School. He represents for that immigrant community "the emboldened valor that would prevail to return our high school's servicemen home unscathed from Midway, Salerno, Cherbourg, the Solomons, the Aleutians, Tarawa" (Roth 1998, 5).

In the end, he sacrifices a career in professional sports in order to join Newark Maid and learn every aspect of the craft and business of glove making. He inherits the business from his father and presides over its expansion after the war. While Lou seems never to have completely left the stink and filth of his alma mater, Seymour serves the business with aplomb and love. He has even bought a farm in rural New Jersey wth his former beauty queen wife, Dawn. He works hard but aspires to the lifestyle of a gentleman farmer. Dawn is the daughter of Irish immigrants, afflicted with all the working class, immigrant resentments of her hometown of Elizabeth. When she decides to use her husband's money to start raising beef cattle, Levov's American dream is consummated. The Newark Maid millions will now support a new generation of genteel Americans, whose cramped, urban, immigrant childhoods will be redeemed in the vigorous physical labor of the Jeffersonian enterprise. Levov's business success allows him to recreate the Jeffersonian American pastoral in rural New Jersey.

Seymour and Dawn's daughter, Meredith or Merry Levov, is supposed to inherit not only the farm and her parents' dreams, but also the entrepreneurial, democratic ethos upon which Seymour's dream house is built. The love of country that nourished and elevated his father from the floor of the tannery to the stone farm house with a tree swing outside is measured in his simple-minded capitulation to family, to tradition, to service, to loyalty, and to prosperity. Late in his own life, after facing down his own physical limitations, Nathan Zuckerman confronts the mystery of Seymour Levov and in the process reveals the unraveling of this handsome, successful, and hyperbolically ordinary Jewish-American man at the hands of his demonically vengeful daughter, Merry. Merry is Roth's monstrous child of the 1960s. Zuckerman, with his artful literary mind, fills in for the culture and ease from struggle to which Levov aspires. Zuckerman and Levov are the two sides of the mercantile, essentially liberal mind. The achievements of the nineteenth-century autonomous individual, exemplified by the mercantile capitalist, allowed a maximum amount of sovereignty and freedom with regard to his leisure time--all in the name of non-business related pursuits. Education and sensibility were the qualities that he could allegedly provide for his immediate family. They were carefully sequestered from ugly competitiveness and brutal exploitation: the domestic world was supposed to be the enchanted site of genteel cultural cultivation and consumption. The successful businessman was sophisticated and proudly advertised his cosmopolitanism and culture as badges of his financial success. It was only in the late nineteenth century that a hardening of American attitudes about education or intellectual expansiveness congealed in the business class. Just as schools became more organized, publicly funded, and regulated institutions that served an increasingly unruly and diverse student body, education itself became increasingly politicized and instrumentalized.

Seymour Levov is innocent of this resentment: he is resolutely apolitical, naively trusting in the consumerist hedonism that allows him to provide for his family in the highest form of class ascension. From working class Jewish Newark, he ascends to WASP rural farm country, where he can become a gentleman farmer, surrounded by bucolic luxury. In this world, he and his wife raise their only child, a demon seed, a girl whose hatred of everything ordinary, everything American, in the name of an impossible politics distilled for Roth the essence of the counterculture. Merry embodies the world-destroying hatred of bourgeois humanism and the liberal institutions it built. In America's democratic ambitions, she can only see hypocrisy, abuse, patriarchy, American imperialism, the war in Vietnam, and violence. Life must be purged of aspirations to the ordinary happiness and comforts in the name of ideological purity and radicalism. Merry goes underground after the bombing of a gas station and post office in Old Rimrock. She has thus succeeded in bringing a piece of the violence of the Vietnam War into the center of her father's American Pastoral. Roth imagines her underground as particularly repellent: she has returned to the dark, putrid, death-filled space that her grandfather Lou worked in. But her squalor is completely non-productive and sterile. There is no craft to learn, no productive labor to perform, no association with others, no collective enterprise, no future here that would be secured by her labors. It is the black hole of interiority, of self-aggrandizing debasement. This demonically angry young woman embodies the countercultural hatred of her father's America: her whole life has become a refutation of her father's values. The Swede's great physical strength has not been able to protect her from being sexually abused during her fugitive existence, but his principled liberalism prevents him from violently extracting her from the excremental squalor that she has chosen. Completely on her own, she has embraced the Indian religion of Jainism and adopts a regime of radical non-violence taken to an extreme. She wears a stocking over her face so that her breath does no harm to the microorganisms in the air. She will not bathe because this does harm to the creatures in the water. She will soon no longer eat even vegetables because that does harm to plant life. Her teeth are rotting, her body emaciated and violated. She makes a mockery of non-violence since she embarks upon a mystical path without communion or community with fellow human beings. From Roth's point of view, this regressive, perverse, and Orientalist mysticism abuses religion and ritual by making of it a radically personal, non-communicative set of practices. She picks up what she knows of Jainism from reading in public libraries. Hers is a bookish radicalism that strains for a metaphysical purity. She is a living affront to the casual physical well-being of her handsome father. Her extreme self-deprivation married to a lust for self-abasement pulls her father into an underworld that utterly destroys him. Merry adds an absurdly hateful ending to the ravages of race, war, and globalization that have consumed Newark and the life and work of generations of Levovs. The destruction of Newark as a city in the riots of 1967 and the deindustrialization of its vibrant core are directly linked to the masochistic, perverse, self-destructive and exultant daughter.

Roth imagines Levov's Biblical suffering as emanating from the senseless evil of radical politics. His own reaction against the 1960s is staged as a denunciation of youth culture's disdain for craft and industry. Roth's detailed and loving description of the craft of glove making, the source of Levov's wealth and immigrant stability, immerses the reader in one of the most vital American myths. The American entrepreneur was once also the American craftsman. Glove making is a craft and process that a generation of Levov's employees--Italian, Jewish and African American--preserved and revered as much as he and his father did. In Levov's deep and sensual knowledge of the craft of glove making, he is one with his business and his workers. He is not an exploiter or a boss. He is as familiar with the demands of this labor as his most subaltern employee. The smells of glove making and its sensuous tactility are described in laborious detail: from the cutting of the finest leather to the expert sewing of each finger, a sense of solidarity with craft, material, worker, and wearer is forged forever. In Roth's mind, after the racial tensions sparked by the Newark riots, Levov's workers hold him and their craft in contempt, soldiering at work, refusing to produce the quality product and participate in the economic activity that once gave meaning to the Levovs and their lives. This, in turn, paves the way for the outsourcing of glove making, first to Ponce in Puerto Rico and then to Asia. The liberated informality of posteoos life makes glove-wearing itself a sign of a bygone era. The demand for immediacy and satisfaction is cast by Roth as a critical part of the cultish radicalism of the anti-liberal mind. Roth's version of Jainism and Merry's embrace of its worship of animal life represent the utter demolition of liberal humanism and its values. The bestial existence of poverty and back breaking labor that Lou Levov tried to keep at bay through industry and craft has returned full force upon the American pastoral, as the revenge of the daughter against her father.

Hou Hsiao-hsien's emergence as a New Wave director/auteur is inseparable from his discovery of a biographically distinctive perspective on the history and culture of Taiwan: in that sense, he is like Philip Roth insofar as Roth discovers "Jewishness" as a perspective and figure from which to write the American novel. Hou is the son of a mainland Chinese family, forced into exile on the island after the 1949 Communist defeat of Kuomintang forces. His autobiographical masterpiece, his second film A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), created a narrative of painful displacement and delinquent youth that captures the experiences of a segment of the Taiwanese population whose parents lived in perpetual longing for the Mainland only two hundred kilometers away. A 400 Blows for the Taiwanese New Wave, A Time to Live, A Time to Die captured with both tenderness and restraint scenes of his parents' deaths. At a time when Taiwan's military dictatorship was loosening its censorship of cultural production, Hou's films became more and more preoccupied with young people negotiating modern life on Taiwan, but his meditation on postwar island life in such films as The Boys from Feng-kuei (1983) was punctuated by gorgeous historical dramas like Flowers of Shanghai (1998). His work was celebrated in Europe. The first in a series of films commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon (2008) moves between Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and French. Transnational funding schemes and festival and art house distribution have allowed Hou's cinematic practice to thrive in a new global space, but his aesthetic, political, and cinematic preoccupations have remained remarkably consistent (Higson 2001,56-67). Andrew Higson has shown that art cinema depends on international networks of critical reception and consumption, even as national success becomes increasingly elusive for directors like Hou. In The Puppetmaster (1993), the life of Li Tien-lu the Taiwanese puppeteer is the subject of Hou's hybrid fictional biography and documentary film. Hou's long take comes from his deep immersion in earlier forms of Asian cinema, namely the work of Ozu and his meditations on the changes in Japanese culture and society in the postwar period.

Having written elsewhere about Winnicott's ideas about the "good enough mother" and its potential usefulness for thinking about film, specifically in the context of a reading of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon (Liu 2011), I will expand upon that reading here, in part to highlight its importance for a theory of craft, time, history and play. Hou's film opens with a shot of a red balloon hovering mischievously above a Parisian treetop. It is of course a powerful reference to Albert Lamorisse's iconic film The Red Balloon (Le Ballon rouge, 1956), about a boy and his balloon's odyssey through the French capital. Hou's film cuts from red balloon to a young boy of about eight or nine, whose name we will later learn is Simon, looking longingly at the deliciously buoyant helium-filled orb. He cajoles the balloon and tries to bribe it into coming home with him. The balloon remains tantalizingly out of reach, but when Simon gives up and descends into a Metro station, it follows him onto the platform. There is a shot of the balloon, hovering on the platform as it "watches" a train leave the station. It is later revealed that this scene is not part of diegesis: it is instead part of a short film that Simon's Chinese babysitter, Song, is making with Simon cast as its protagonist. Later, we will see the shot of the platform replayed on Song's laptop, with Simon, dressed in green, holding the balloon. Song explains to Suzanne, Simon's mother, that she will digitally erase Simon from the scene so that it will appear that the balloon is "standing" still on its own. When we cut to the train leaving the station, it will appear to be from the balloon's point of view. Song tells Suzanne that for some reason, the color green is more easily digitally erased, which is why she had Simon dressed in green that day. Juliette Binoche plays Suzanne, whose own family has been involved with puppeteering for generations. Her struggle to preserve and make contemporary the traditional arts of folk entertainment puts demands upon her energies that are extraordinarily difficult for her to reconcile with her role as a single mother. Suzanne's absorption in her work gives her a sense of peace with the world that she otherwise does not seem to be able to experience. Always rushing from rehearsal to after-school pickup, she and her son rarely meet in the same psychic space. Suzanne has chosen, however, an uncannily apt substitute, a transitional object, Song, the Chinese filmmaker/babysitter/transnational outsider who is able to connect Simon to his mother's world. Song is a figure of affective, transient labor, a mother substitute paid in cash, working on the margins of the post-industrial city.

In Hou's film, the red balloon is no longer the singular and privileged object of desire and longing as it was in the The Red Balloon by Laromisse, a classic cinematic treatise on urban realism and the tracking shot; it has assumed the status of the transitional object. Song tells Simon about the 1956 French film on a walk home from school. The camera pulls back from lanky babysitter and tousled-haired boy to pan up to reveal a painting of a red balloon on the side of a Parisian building. The image of the red balloon is not contained by the logical parameters of Song's digital remake of the 1956 original: it reappears in Simon's world, hovering outside windows during moments of domestic crisis and tension. It seems to be a guardian angel, or at least a compassionate but childish witness. I argue that it exists in the transitional, intersubjective space described by Winnicott, as created by baby (Simon) and mother figure (Suzanne and Song combined here). This is the location of play and it comes out of the baby's creativity and aliveness, its neediness, the mother figure's care and her intermittent inattention. The transitional objects exist in neither dream nor reality. For Winnicott, they are "universal and protea" (Winnicott 1992, 204). Hou refuses to use montage editing, although in the Cinemasie interview he confesses to ignorance of Andre Bazin's critique of it. Hou confesses also to having learned a great deal about Paris after reading Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon, a memoir of an American family's expatriate experience in the French capital. It was from Gopnik's book that Hou integrated the puppet theater of the Jardin du Luxembourg and the "machine to draw the world," a plastic, portable camera obscura that the children play with during a summer vacation. Hou's respect for spatial unity can be analyzed as a component of not merely a specifically cinematic exploration of realism but of a project of visual exploration of everyday life that is both aesthetically and psychologically rigorous. Its introduction as a plot element allows Song to "teach" Simon about the visually dense cityscape he inhabits. The red balloon first appears in the film as a piece of urban graffiti, re-interpreted and re-inscribed across a variety of surfaces, some digital, some physical. Song works as a babysitter; in her work, she does more than take care of Simon, she inserts him playfully into cinema history: in her film within a film, she tells the story of a red balloon, a little boy and the streets of Paris. The red balloon is an important icon of collective fantasy and popular pedagogy: it is a durable and fragile piece of an unstable, databased world.

The emotional climax of the film follows the scene of a dramatic cell phone call that is shot entirely through the windshield of a car in which Suzanne, Song, and Simon are riding. It takes place as a long take that lasts eight minutes: the take is also densely multi-layered and multi-planar, acoustically, psychologically, and dramatically. It takes place within the cramped confines of Suzanne and Simon's crowded apartment. The long take opens with Simon seated on the floor playing Gameboy on his Playstation: the television screen that absorbs Simon is at an oblique angle, so we are able to see Simon's absorption and his manipulation of the Playstation controls. Accompanying the familiar image of a child playing a computer game are the sounds of clicking controls, computer generated fighting sounds, grunting, body blows, etc. The first audio layer is thus established as coming from Simon's world. The camera pans up and right to show us Song leading the blind piano tuner into the apartment. William the piano tuner radiates an air of gentle composure that matches Song's quietness. Once in front of the piano, he asks Song about its make and folds up his cane and lifts the top of the piano to begin his work. As William begins his work, Marc, the neighbor, rings the doorbell and opens it abruptly, asking for Suzanne. He slams the door when Song tells him Suzanne is not there. The sound of the slam is all the more shocking since it takes place in deep space, but is recorded democratically; that is, on the same plane as the piano tuner. In the meantime, the camera is entirely focused on William's tuning work. Off the theatrical plane, Marc's act of violence is like an audio body blow, taking the viewer and listener entirely by surprise. Marc is a friend of Suzanne's ex-lover, a writer and freelancer like Suzanne's ex, Pierre. Marc has been taking advantage of the friendship and has been skipping out on the rent for months. Suzanne has found a lawyer and is in the process of evicting him, first by placing a block on his bank account. She inherited the real estate as she did the tradition of puppetry from her family and she is trying to preserve both, while making a living from both legacies at the same time.

Marc's door slamming is meant to shock and the sound of his rage is palpable, but William and Simon remain entirely focused on their respective activities. The second and third audio layers are established. The camera remains at rest next to the piano and the camera is as unperturbed as William. When the telephone rings, establishing a fourth audio layer, it comes as yet another jarring interruption. Song answers the phone off screen. At first, the camera does not follow the new sound or interruptions. When Simon takes the phone, however, the camera pans left and low to focus on the boy on the floor. The tuning begins, with major third and fifth chords resonating from middle "C." Just as Simon loses the telephone connection, the camera pans up to the front door and we hear the sounds of an altercation in the stairwell. Marc has accosted Suzanne on her way home. As Suzanne opens the apartment door, the argument continues past the doorstep, and she physically pushes him out of the apartment while he ends up telling her that she has become hateful and that Pierre is never coming back. The telephone rings again just as Suzanne physically pushes Marc out the door and throws the deadbolt shut. Simon, unable to understand what his mother has been through, hands her the telephone while she screams, still high on the adrenaline of self-defense, "Who is it?" Simon tells her it is his older sister Louise and returns to his Playstation out of the frame. Suzanne takes up the phone and paces through the apartment, bisecting it diagonally. The camera follows her frantic movement, but it never moves in for a close-up, even as her pain and disappointment become more and more palpable. After she tells Louise she misses her and hangs up the phone, Simon enters his mother's psychological space (even though he remains off screen) by asking her what has happened. Framed in profile, she looks at him off screen, her face suddenly transformed by tenderness as he crosses the frame to join her in an embrace and a greeting that makes up for Suzanne's earlier brutality. Suzanne holds Simon as much as Simon holds his mother: the reciprocity of maternal containment is made visible by the camera's reserved and discreet take on their embrace and subsequent conversation. The long take becomes a container for Suzanne's sense of loss and betrayal, as both lover and mother. She goes through the agonizing acceptance of Louise's independence and her separateness even as she has to deal with the incontrovertible evidence of Pierre's abandonment. On top of all this, she has to recognize and adjust to Simon's vulnerability and sensitivity. Simon's embrace of his mother occurs as an outstandingly rare moment of affection and tenderness between them: he still needs her and she needs him. If she has temporarily forgotten him in the maelstrom of an altercation and a painful revelation about his sister's refusal to return home, she is able to refocus her attention on him and they finally meet on the same acoustic and psychological plane, a space that they have not previously occupied in this take. The embrace becomes the space of her potential reconciliation with all her losses. After having to defend her home and financial interests against a parasitic neighbor, she has to accept her lover's abandonment and her daughter's refusal.

If Suzanne is rageful and indeed at moments repellent and hateful, the long take documents the ebb and flow of her intense emotions and their transformation and redemption. It allows us to see her evolving attempts to contain the rawness of her emotions for the sake of those around her. Suzanne's metamorphosis from warrior to bereft mother is accompanied by the sounds of William tuning the piano: the soundtrack offers a contrapuntal sense of harmony and focus in a chaotic and cramped frame. When she accepts Louise's decision, Suzanne can become Simon's mother once again and is able to return to the space and time of her home as she finds it: she looks at her son and asks after his day, is actually able to laugh and listen to his account of what he learned in second grade. Thus affirmed, Simon moves back to the Playstation and Suzanne reenters the psychic space of the apartment by acknowledging William's and Song's presence, both of whom she addresses for the first time. She asks after the piano tuner and indicates her appreciation to Song for bringing William up from the street. She moves towards the kitchen table and apologizes to Song while the camera pans back to refocus on the open keys of the piano. Harmony is reestablished as the tuning continues with Playstation Gameboy sounds also having resumed in Simon's audio space. A delicate equilibrium has returned: Suzanne has undergone a painful series of emotional transformations, moving through phases of rage, maternal grief, and reconciliation. Song is the uneasy witness to a humiliating scene of disappointment and rejection: she is doing the immaterial, affective labor described by Arlie Hochschild (2012) in herwork on the topic. In the world of personal computing, she is also the figure of care and digitalization. Without her, Simon would not have survived the turmoil of his mother's turbulent life as a struggling artist and single mother: but the psychic cost to her is difficult to recognize, much less monetize. In comparison with other caregivers, Song is privileged and college educated and is treated by Suzanne as an equal. But the way in which she is able to carve out a space of work resonates with the description of "work's intimacy" articulated by Melissa Gregg (2011) in her recent ethnography of casual, part-time, new economy employment.

In the series of ceramic figurines by Ann Agee called Agee Manufacturing, two sculptures stand out to me as having something to do with the problems of absorption, split temporalities, and the artist as "good enough mother." The first is a virtuosic execution of ceramic work called Cutting Circles (fig. 1): a young boy leans against his mother's body as she is cutting out cloth circles from material that looks the consistency of felt. The angle of the figures is pitched forward and the mother's body figuratively and literally supports the weight of the boy. The delicate balance is achieved through Agee's ceramicist's skill, while the spatial psychic suspension is a representation of divided maternal attention. The mother's body is present to her child but her attention is elsewhere: divided temporality and contiguous spaces make it possible for the embodiment of maternal holding, even as maternal attention is diverted from the child's immediate needs. The warmth of his mother's back seems to be enough for the child, whose arms are loosely locked around his mother's body: what he is experiencing is extremely different from what his mother is experiencing and yet they are content to occupy the same space and time, albeit in radically different ways. The mother is both present and absent to her child, but as Winnicott would argue, her very distraction allows for the critical process of weaning to take place in her child, here no longer an infant in radical need. In Winnicott's clinical work, he found morbidly obsessive, anxious mothering underlying a sustained traumatic infantile experience. If not being held at all is one kind of intersubjective abandonment, anxious holding produces a more sustained temporal trauma for the infant and emerging subject.

Agee's Making Bread (fig. 2) makes more implicit the problem of need, holding and maternal activity, in this case one not of cutting circles for a craft or art project, but of making bread, a domestic chore whose difficulty and sensuality is manifested in the tensed angle of the mother's sandal-clad feet. Agee states that in this figure, she was trying to show that something had gone wrong in the "weaning process" as the weaned son is reaching up her shirt for a reassuring touch of the breast while the mother is unable to ward him off in the middle of cooking. The symbiosis of mother's activity and childish need creates another version of the dividedness of experience and the mute exchange of need and satisfaction between a mother's preoccupations and a child's demand for attention and affectual containment. In both cases, mothers are deeply absorbed in their work and the children seek to enter the maternal world by maximizing bodily contact. In Making Bread, the mother seems to tolerate and enjoy his caresses, but her attention is drawn to the activity at hand. Both figurines, like traditional ceramic sculpture, are meant to capture that fleeting moment, here not pastoral or bucolic but I would argue psychological and sensual. Work has been at the center of Agee's art for decades: from the division of labor to the question of conceptualizing craft skill in an era of conceptual painting, her engagement with her materials has been nothing short of virtuosic. Her early 1990s artists' residency at the Kohler factories of Wisconsin shaped her political and aesthetic commitments to reconciling the spaces and rhythms of manufacturing with the dignity of craft temporality. In these two figurines, she seems to be puzzling out the divided affectual and cognitive spaces produced by domesticity and motherhood in the making of art. At Kohler, one of the most secretive and conservative American manufacturing companies, Agee was allowed unprecedented access to the factory and to workers. Although she could not take photographs of the assembly line, she spent time sketching and interviewing those working on it. Eventually, she made a set of blue delft plates as portraits of the workers she got to know. Certain members of the Kohler family were interested in contemporary art and especially contemporary ceramics, but after Agee's residency the artists' residence program was reformed and made more restrictive.




Like Suzanne in Flight of the Red Balloon, the mothers in Agee's sculptures are distracted. They make themselves available for their children but economic pressures, the mother's interest, and domestic tasks at hand make it difficult for working mothers to be on the same plane at the same time with dependent children. A psychological, material, and social structure is necessary for the mother to have the strength to provide a mute support for the child's demand. As Hou and Agee carve out spaces of self-reflection and contemplation, they are also addressing the enforced complicity of freelance performers, writers, and artists with affective labor in the "culture of the new capitalism." In Suzanne's case, her inheritance, the apartment building, provides a rental income as well as a comfortable if cramped home for her children. Song is also part of the support structure that allows Suzanne to work and care for her son at the same time. Not to be overlooked in the precariousness of Suzanne's situation is the presence of good public schools and the French national health care system. In the case of Agee's ceramic sculpture, the figure of the mother literally supports the weight of the child. It is a virtuosic piece of ceramic sculpture making and entailed careful manipulation of the figure before and after firing in the kiln. The working mother as artist, homemaker, and freelancer has to move between many roles, but she is also productively and positively immobilized by her child's needs. Flexibility is neither condemned nor celebrated: it is simply a multi-dimensional, feminine way of being: care, play, and making are at the center of women's work. Strangely enough, as Gregg has shown, new technologies make women's work easily subsumable under the new regimes of digital constant contact. While Agee's mother and child are distinctively analog and crafts oriented, their material intimacy fleshes out the demands of maternal multi-tasking in a digital age.

Hou's film is a realistic representation of contemporary urban motherhood in a post-Fordist age. Like Agee, Hou engages in a meditation on the difficulties of preserving folk and craft traditions in a cinematic narrative that also addresses museums, transitional objects, and digital special effects. Agee's sculptures show mother and child inhabiting the space of the transitional object while they are experiencing the world in two profoundly different ways. Maternal distraction, however, provides a way for the child to make use of the mother's body with impunity, allowing the child to depend upon the other in a creative and impulsive manner. At its most radical, Winnicott's theory of transitional objects and their world-making usefulness assumes the presence of stable social, economic, and affectual conditions that in the post-World War II world were supposed to be guaranteed by strong social democratic institutions. Fragility in the caregiver is often internalized as sadism, fear, and emptiness in the child. In a world of financial austerity and ubiquitous competition, the creative use of objects and others becomes increasingly inhibited on material and psychological levels. The mid-twentieth-century university provided a place in which the practices of unproductive consumption of goods and leisure activities once monopolized by Thorstein Veblen's rentier/gentleman could be mass-produced and redistributed. Veblen's critique of university education proved more influential than he would have believed possible: while he thought of the academic as a successor to the quasi-feudal leisure class gentleman, the scholar remade by the new twentieth-century university was usually a man connected to social progress. Inclusion of minorities and women in the university's expansion pioneered forms of Mark McGurl's "high-cultural pluralism" (2009).

The Cold War US version of the humanities represented a democratizing attempt to reconcile popular interests with new regimes of professionalization set into place in order to guarantee academic freedom as a public good. But increasingly, it seemed that professors were liberated from public accountability in order to argue among themselves. As the mass middle class has declined in economic, cultural, and symbolic power, the institutions created in its name, specifically the public university, have also quailed in the face of the history-annihilating forces of innovation and competition. Global business elites have never been so effective at framing the ways in which we should think about aesthetic experience, creativity, and the good life. The revolutionaries and anarchists in the boardroom have promised us explosive changes framed entirely by technological innovation and business-friendly policies rather than intellectual, academic, or social concerns. If we have returned to the economic polarization of the Gilded Age during which Veblen was working, we can take succor from the power of Veblen's critical negativity. The luxuries of time and reflection should be made available to all rather than rationed for the few. In order for this redistributive process to take place on a scale sufficient to address the needs of students today, we cannot be content with promoting the craftsman as our model individual: we can, however, work toward designing models of education that allow for the principles, temporality, and value of craft to be explored and cultivated within large institutions. Design, however, cannot be divorced from historical knowledge. Howard Singerman (1999) argued for the historicism at the heart of modernist design manifestos of the early twentieth century. The aesthetic principles of creativity promoted by Laszio Moholy-Nagy were grounded in political and archival knowledge of form and function. The design of the post-World War II university may be historically obsolete: we have to imagine a better university, one that is not built on the shifting sands of management cliches and big-business agendas. That said, the irrationality with which some humanities professors cling to a notion of the beautiful soul in rejecting all administrative perspectives on research and teaching is indicative of the intellectual and material impasse at which we find ourselves.


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(1) I am a professor at UC Irvine and was hired during Karen Lawrence's tenure as Dean of the Humanities. Lawrence supported small majors in the School of Humanities and took that sense of elite liberal arts education with her. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the School went through an austerity period when many of the policies she put into place had to be reexamined.

(2) It should be noted that the global elite do not send their children to distance learning, for-profit universities: never has private school K-12 education been so expensive or precious as in an age when public schools are subject to a punishing regime of budget cuts and standardized assessments. Typical annual private school tuition for one child at $27,000 exceeds US Health and Human Services poverty threshold for families of four at $23,000.

(3) The dismissal and subsequent re-hiring of Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia (UVA) turned on her reluctance to embrace entrepreneurial initiatives for online education. The uproar over the way in which she was dismissed was publicly damaging to the university, one of the oldest and most prestigious public universities in the country. On his Facebook feed, Doug Henwood has described Sullivan's ouster as an attempt by FIRE to depose a member of the PMC ( UVA's activist board was led by Helen Dragas, who has close ties to Wall Street financiers. Dragas complained that UVA was falling behind its competitors "especially in the development of online courses" (Rice 2012).

CATHERINE LIU is Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author oi American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press, 2011). She publishes on the culture industry, film culture, surveillance, psychoanalytic theory, and critical theory. She also writes fiction and creative non-fiction.
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Date:Mar 22, 2015
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