An occasional look at
some of the more breathtaking products
of academic research

Some of the screeds featured below were likely occasioned by their writers' clever attempts to bring new insight and meaning to material that has been worked to death. Others were the results of desperate desires to identify objects worthy of scholarly attention heretofore overlooked. Many are gratuitous by any standard, and simply take one's breath away. In any event, they all cause one to wonder why in the world their authors would attach their real names to them.

     Perhaps vandalized art should be considered through the lens of disability studies, writes Tobin Siebers, a professor of English and director of the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor [in the spring 2002 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review]. Whereas works of art that portray disabled people may render a disability more beautiful and evoke strong emotions, they also "seem to erect a partition separating the real world from the work of art, as if its aesthetic status acted like a barrier against the fact of disability," writes the author. However, because of their form rather than content, vandalized images are able to convey disability in a "rawer, more immediate, more potent" way.
     Mr. Siebers also looks at the phenomenon of art vandalism among people with mental illness, and how society refuses to view it as a form of creative expression, instead dismissing it as madness. "The most important criterion for identifying art would seem to be its ability to affect the emotions, sensibilities, and perceptions of the people who experience it," he writes. "One thing is clear about art vandalism, despite its often confusing meanings: it possesses extraordinary resources to produce these kinds of changes in its audience." (From "Academe Today," the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education,May 22, 2002.)

     Prof. Siebers raises some fascinating issues in his article. He calls to mind Laszlo Toth, the deranged Hungarian geologist who in 1972 took a sledge hammer to Michelangelo's "Pieta" while shouting, "I am Jesus Christ!"  Toth was a certified lunatic, and we can only assume that his bold oeuvre vaults him into the stratosphere of Prof. Siebers's list of noteworthy artists. But why should mentally ill artists be the only persons to benefit from a new and richly deserved recognition for creative expression?
     Let us be fair and--by all means--inclusive. What about people who are just plain stupid? Don't they, too, deserve to have their artistic expressions taken seriously? For that matter, what about rabid religious fundamentalists? The Taliban won great fame for their aesthetically bold and imaginative pulverizing in 2001 not merely of the monumental Buddha statues at Bamiyan, but of most of the art and artifacts on display in the National Museum in Kabul. Let's be charitable in defining this new class of creative minds, and admit that religious fundamentalism is just another of the many names for artistic creativity. I suppose we might also regard--oh, let's say, for example--flying an airliner into a skyscraper as a form of creative expression.

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     There recently appeared a syndicated op-ed piece in a number of American newspapers written by one Prof. C. Bradley Thompson of Ashland University in Ohio, headlined "Professors Have Tied the Hands of America." In short, his "argument" (we use the term loosely here) runs as follows: The U.S. has been both savaged and humiliated repeatedly by foreign terrorists over the past 25 years; and our response has been to appease, call for restraint, and negotiate, owing to the fact that "... America's intellectuals have waged a war of attrition against the core values of American civilization." And it is (pause: one-thousand-one, one-thousand-two, one-thousand-three) college professors who are ultimately culpable in this vast left-wing conspiracy. That's right, college professors, who--with chilling, surgical efficiency--brainwash America's youth by the millions into thinking that "one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter." (This characterization, as it happens, nicely echoes the dueling labels in testimony spun during the congressional Iran-Contra hearings of the 1980s. But let us not be distracted from the task at hand.) Yes, according to Prof. C. Bradley Thompson, "From Harvard to Berkeley, the professoriate preaches that America has only itself to blame for the events of Sept. 11," and "Osama bin Laden ... [is] counting on America's intellectuals to indirectly aid and abet his cause." Split infinitive notwithstanding, the image that Prof. C. Bradley Thompson adduces here overstates both the degree of success of the professoriate in propagandizing and its effect on American university students, who are alleged to be falling into lock-step with them.
     Prof. C. Bradley Thompson must be one very miserable guy, a clear thinker tragically trapped in the body of a college professor. If we may be permitted to engage in a little amateurish PoMo psychoanalytic lit crit, our diagnosis would be that Prof. C. Bradley Thompson's profound self-loathing is the ultimate cause of his sad and embarrassing op-ed rant. The question is not whether a few impressionable undergraduates have been ideologically coöpted by tenured radicals. The question is whether all the rest are even remotely attuned to the implications of the differences between left and right.
     But sunlight is the best disinfectant, as the old saw goes. Prof. C. Bradley Thompson has shone the Bright Light of Truth upon our craven little game. The jig is up, and I for one have realized that I have no choice but to come clean. I have discreetly passed the word (through messages encoded in a video shot at an undisclosed location) to my own legions of student revolutionary nihilists-in-the-making that they must stand down. It is clearly time to go underground--metaphorically, that is, inasmuch as north Texas is not rich in caves like Afghanistan--until this blows over.

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     No self-respecting classicist will admit it, but there actually exists a book entitled Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship, edited by Judith P. Hallett (University of Maryland) and Thomas Van Nortwick (Oberlin College), published in 1997 by Routledge (who else?). In nine utterly amazing essays and a response, the book may be characterized as a churning, bubbling vat of anguish, apoplexy, bile, and other bad humors.
     There is much to be said about this extraordinarily embarrassing book (which might most charitably be understood as heavy-duty therapy), but we will resist the urge, in deference to an eloquent review article by Victor Davis Hanson, professor of Greek at California State University in Fresno ("'Too Much Ego in Your Cosmos'," Arion 6:1 (1998), 137-168). That essay is without doubt the most trenchant ever written about a book in classical studies, and quite possibly about any book in any academic discipline. One genuflects to Hanson's erudition, his willingness to call a spade a spade, and his cranky writing style. Unfortunately it is not available online, but it has been reprinted as Chapter 4 in Victor Davis Hanson, John Heath, and Bruce S. Thornton, Bonfire of the Humanities: Rescuing Classics in an Impoverished Age (Wilmington, DE 2001).
     But wait--there's more. One of the editors of Compromising Traditions (Hallett), after a brilliant piece of literary sleuthing, had concluded in 1995 that none other than Victor Davis Hanson (together with another academic co-conspirator) was in fact the Unabomber. Driven by conscience, she took it upon herself to turn him in to the FBI. Interested readers may slog throught the resulting e-traffic charges, countercharges, and miscellaneous expressions of aggrievement in the archives of the Classics-L listserv (just punch 'Unabomber' into its search engine). But be warned in advance that wallowing in this stuff takes a sturdy constitution.

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     To be or not to be: That is the sssssss.
     "Mike Phillips and his colleagues at Plymouth University, in England, recently found themselves drawn to a very ... bad idea. The Victorian naturalist Thomas Huxley, arguing for the organizing power of random chance, allegedly advanced the conceit that an infinite number of monkeys banging away at typewriters over the course of infinity would eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. The Plymouth researchers set out to explore this proposition, giving six Sulawesi crested macaques the use of a computer for four weeks. In the end the monkeys produced not a single word, and showed little interest in any key but S. 'Another thing they were interested in,' a spokesman for the project said, 'was defecating and urinating all over the keyboard.'" (Cullen Murphy, Atlantic Monthly, September 2003, p. 162).

     We would humbly suggest that this experiment was flawed from the git-go, and does not even begin to test Huxley's hypothesis. Six monkeys??  Four weeks??  The Phillips team could use a remedial course in scientific method, not to mention a stern lecture on the seductiveness of instant gratification.

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     "Professors fear the world outside academe and pass their worry, anger, and envy on to students by indoctrinating them into an anti-American culture, says Ben Stein, a senior editor for the [American Spectator magazine in its August/September 2003 issue]. Radicals have taken over America's colleges and universities, Mr. Stein says, and they see to it that 'only other frightened, angry, Marxist types such as themselves' can teach. Because those professors will not allow dissent, and because 'there is no group more conformist than most college students,' he says, 'you get a faculty that Stalin would be proud of and a student body that follows their lead.' 'The colleges and university monoliths,' he writes, 'want to take us back to the old days, the bad old days of 1930s Germany or Soviet Russia, when only the Hitler Youth and the Young Pioneers were allowed to be alive.' Many students escape the influence of their professors' ideology once they leave college and get jobs, he says. But 'back at the university, where professors have tenure and only have to teach a few hours a week ... a college faculty never has to grow up. It can cling to its fear and childish loathing of grown-ups out in the big wide world forever.' (From the Chronicle of Higher Education online Daily Report, August 25, 2003.)

     Dr. Petruso would desperately like to conclude that Mr. Stein wrote this article in his persona as TV comic rather than his persona as economist. But there is little evidence of this. The American Spectator is a red-meat magazine, hardly the kind of rag that seeks--much less gets--belly laughs. Perhaps Mr. Stein and Prof. C. Bradley Thompson (see above) are in league. Or perhaps they are simply suffering from the same tragic neo-con delusions (this could well be a syndrome that falls under the category of mass hysteria; maybe it has even been described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. On the other hand, maybe these guys should just take a deep breath in the hopes that it will pass.

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