Saturday, 12 October 2013

No More Alice Munros!

So isn’t it wonderful that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 10, 2013? I’m very happy for her, and for Canada. But, unfortunately it may very well be the last time that Canada is able to celebrate the international success of one of its writers in this way. For if the recent trend in funding universities continues, there may very well be No More Munros.
As the University of Western Ontario’s website is proud to proclaim, Alice Munro’s “publishing life started at Western. Munro’s first connection to Western’s Department of English came while she was an undergraduate student pursuing an English major. As a student, she published three short stories in Western’s undergraduate English magazine, Folio, from 1949-51.”
But the English Department that nurtured Munro’s creative writing career may be a thing of the past. The new trend in the new tough economic climate, is that universities should only support programs that lead to instant jobs upon graduation. Peter Cohan offered this solution in Forbes magazine for the problems plaguing cash strapped universities in 2012: “The solution could be as simple as eliminating the departments that offer majors that employers do not value. To that end, I would suggest that every university develop an income statement for each of its academic departments….Departments that are profitable and likely to remain so would stick around. Those that are not and would not, get cut.”
Are American and Canadian universities following Forbes advice? Well it certainly seems so. Christine McKenna, in her report on the Canadian Federation of Humanities and Social Sciences 2013 Congress mentions “a recent trend among other Canadian universities of funding cuts to humanities programs.”
Yes folks, English programs are not likely to guarantee students immediate employment when they graduate, so in the future there may be no more Alice Munros. I know what you’re going to say.  That writers don’t need to go to university. Most likely, Shakespeare didn’t go to university. So why should people like Alice Munro? And after all, doesn’t it do those writers some good to suffer? If a writer is going to be a writer, shouldn’t they be able to do it without a university education?
            Matters aren’t helped when Canadian writers like Robertson Davies decry government funding to the arts. But he -- like many others -- have received and continue to receive government help. Robertson Davies made his living as an academic (teaching at the University of Toronto, which receives ample government support).
            It isn’t only that writers like Alice Munro take courses at Universities, but that University humanities departments create a culture of reading and literacy in Canada, and an appreciation for art -- one that not only helps to enrich our lives but also insures that people will in fact continue to read, and appreciate creativity in general.
            But we are, increasingly, morphing into a world that doesn’t understand the value of anything unless it has a dollar sign on it.
            That’s too bad. Canada’s Group of Seven, for instance, believed that art offered us a direct connection (through nature) to the mysteries of the human spirit. Canadian theatre pioneer and Group of Seven affiliate Roy Mitchell spoke of: “a statement of the spiritual power which theatre could attain as religion towards the awakening of the soul.”
            Yes, it’s really too bad. As we cut university humanities programs we are not only abandoning the Group of Seven’s vision, we are abandoning our souls.
And just a side note: there will more Alice Munros, and no more Nobel prizes for literature, for Canada.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Our Great Leader Would Prefer You Turned Your Attention to….Sandra Bullock’s Thighs

            I’m really sick of these American blockbuster movies. Have you noticed that every week Hollywood releases a new big expensive-to-make film, and, luckily, it just happens to get a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? We discover, to our surprise, that it has also ‘rocked the box office’ in its first week, and set a new record (a new record every week wow!) in ticket sales.  Co-incidentally – well no, obviously because the film is just so fabulous -- everyone is talking about it. Well lately, the media has added a new twist. Whatever the big film happens to be, it also just happens to be the centre of a giant debate that keeps tongues a-flappin’. Last week the record-breaking blockbuster was Gravity. All America was just itchin’ to see it, CNN told us. And, also – astronauts were being interviewed about the requisite ‘controversy.’ Were depictions of space travel in Gravity accurate? They had to get a rocket scientist on CNN to discuss this one. Gee whiz, Sandra Bullock is bouncing around from space station to space station, and manages to return to the earth on her own, and she’s never even flown a plane -- and her makeup doesn’t get mussed. How accurate could this piece of humungous garbage filmmaking possibly be?
This week it’s Captain Philips – starring the Oscar winning Tom Hanks, who, amazingly, has managed to master a New England accent for the role – wow, what acting chops, eh? But check this out -- there’s a huge controversy over the film. Was Captain Philips really a hero, or did he steer his ship into pirate-infested waters -- effectively causing the entire bloody attack himself?
Well I guess you’re just going to have to go to the stupid movie and create your own opinion.
I’m sorry to be so sarcastic about this whole damn thing, but it's not just that our brains are being destroyed by bad movies. I’m frightened of the Brave New World we live in, where even our entertainment has been homogenized to such an extent that most people are being fooled into thinking they are watching challenging art when they are in truth watching the latest government approved crap to keep us all docile and compliant.
Hey, wait, this isn’t Old Soviet Russia! This isn’t Woody Allen’s Sleeper! These are not messages from our fearless leader telling us all that our lives our okay, and we should not oppose the government and just shut up.
Or are they?
I remember -- when I was a kid --learning that there were two kinds of dictatorships, fascist and communist. Communist dictatorships sprang from socialism, whereas fascist dictatorship sprang from capitalism. This never made sense to me. How could capitalism be totalitarian?
But capitalism IS totalitarian; the profit motive insures that – if it is not checked – we will never again have to deal with radical ideas that might disturb us. Remember when the internet used to be the wild wild west of information and ideas? Now, watch out -- don’t try putting too much gay stuff into a youtube video or it might get censored. Don’t try and sell a book with too many naked pictures on Apple Online. And Google is starting a World Library. Hey don’t be fooled by that. Google is not starting a World Library, they are hoping to become the World’s Biggest Bookstore (which is why Toronto is closing the store by that name downtown!). As profit motive becomes the primary engine driving the web, we will only be reading what the capitalists want us to read, nothing else.
Adorno and Horkheimer predicted it all many years ago in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. They said that as Hollywood became more and more driven by the profit motive we would no longer see movies that artists wanted to make, but instead movies that movie moguls would like us to see.
Yes, folks, the time has come to clear your mind. No more troubling thoughts about the worldwide rise of fundamentalist religions that oppress women and gays (isn’t that too complicated to figure out, what with political correctness and all?), or global warming (aren’t we just tired of it?) or the implications of a global capitalism that manages to enslave the east in a massive project to provide cheap labour and cheap goods for the affluent west?
Clear your mind of these ideas. They are far too tiring for your tiny brains, anyway.
            Worry about Sandra Bullock tumbling through space in her tiny gym shorts, and Tom Hanks’s potential, as he gets older, to to transform himself into Everybody’s Cuddly Daddy.
            That’s the kinda stuff that should keep you busy.
Cuz, this is the way the world ends…..