21st-Century Studies

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

What will the 21st century bring? A decade or so into it we have a jumble of conflicting visions of the next 90 years. A good many college and university presidents—the official count is 676—are on record predicting grave disruptions to the Earth’s climate. Other academics foresee the rise of China as a global hegemon coupled with the economic and cultural decline of the United States. One way or the other, continued globalization remains high on the list of what scholars predict the future will bring. Technological progress is surely in the offing, but the scientific community is always a bit shy about such stuff. Maybe the Higgs boson will make its debut at Large Hadron Collider sometime soon and physics as we know it will be on a new footing. Or maybe not. Maybe controlled fusion will at last emerge from decades of uncontrolled spending. Maybe genomics or proteomics will usher in an age free of many diseases that continue to afflict us.

Curiosity about tomorrow and speculation about the day after are generally a good thing, and some prophecies are self-fulfilling in a constructive way. My favorite is the list of 23 mathematical problems David Hilbert announced at the International Conference of Mathematicians in Paris in 1900 as his pick of the matters most likely to concern his field in the coming century. Ten of the problems are now accepted as solved, and seven more have solutions that remain somewhat controversial. Did Hilbert simply possess extraordinary insight into direction of his discipline? Or did the list itself help focus attention on these particular problems?

The making of Hilbert-style lists are one way to ponder what another century might bring. Another way is exemplified by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies. To be sure, C21, as it styles itself, is not in the prediction business. It was founded in the heady days of 1968 as the Center for 20th Century Studies, and aimed at fostering “cross-disciplinary research in the humanities.” It evolved; or perhaps that term is too teleological. It moved along; it encountered trendy new ideas; it coagulated around them. Its Web site explains:

The Center has long been a leader in the study of modern and contemporary culture, including film, performance, the visual arts, and everyday life, as well as in critical reflection in such areas as feminism, media theory, multiculturalism, postcolonialism, cultural and social theory, and lesbian and gay studies. We do not, however, limit our inquiries to the contemporary world, recognizing that the exploration of the historical, political, and social dimensions of contemporary problems, including race, class, gender, sexuality, and conflict, can only enhance our understanding of them.

Still, a center that names itself as “21st century studies” is making some sort of claim about what the 21st century entails. Indeed C21 has seen the 21st century and reports back in a variety of ways. It puts on symposia (“Space, Power, and Fear in Modern America”), sponsors lectures (“Media Archaeology as Zombie Media Research”), stages multi-media performances (“Here Right Now,” described as “a lecture/recital, trombone and live processing” event), sets up forums (“Representing the Detained’), and participates in interdisciplinary conferences (“Faking It! Production, Knowledge, Authority”). All these examples come from the last several years of the Center’s programming.

Having granted itself latitude not to “limit our inquiries to the contemporary world,” C21 has sponsored some events that look at very distinct pieces of the past, such as a lecture on “Colonial Effects to Stop Female Circumcision in Sudan 1920-46.” And it sponsored a performance by Michelle Matlock of her work, “The Mammy Project,” which focuses “on the commercialization of Mammy in the character of Aunt Jemima” of pancake batter fame. The 21st century, however, remains on stage in these events. Aunt Jemima is still bought and sold from her “pancake box prison,” and female circumcision poses an irresolvable difficulty for those caught between their repugnance at the practice and their idealization of non-Western cultures.

Some of C21’s lectures do have an up-to-the-minute touch. In 2007, it sponsored Lisa Nakamura lecturing on “The Terrorist Look: Biometric Screens, Race, and the Digital Sublime.” I don’t know what the “digital sublime” is. It was not among the versions of sublimity addressed in Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) though Burke did famously argue that “terror is […] the ruling principle of the sublime.” So perhaps Nakamura was pointing to the continued relevance of a classic work on aesthetics. Still, shoeless and beltless TSA checks at the airport backed by biometric screens have little obvious connection to the sublime.

But the word “sublime” does seem apt for the larger intentions of C21 and perhaps for the whole sector of academic postmodernism that C21 attempts to honor and elevate. One of the meanings of sublime as a transitive verb is to convert an inferior thing into something of higher worth. The task of 21st century studies is to take trivialities, marginal observations, the detritus of popular culture, and the nervous irritations of scholars fussing with the unwanted legacy of their own civilization and sublime these into rather glossy events. This mostly involves the alchemy of jargon. C21 celebrated its 40 anniversary with, among other things, a lecture titled, “The Free Trade of Appearance: Historicizing, Hybridizing, and Decentering the Real.”

Exactly. Despite C21’s earnest efforts to dance at the ball of transgressiveness, the themes of its events are pretty much the well worn clichés of the academic left. The only shock anyone will register at a lecture titled “Love and Bullshit in Santa Rosa,” about a Coen Brother’s movie, is that a philosophy professor is reduced to flinging verbal excrement to get some attention. The “Faking It!” conference comes with an explanation for the oblivious souls who don’t get the reference: “Beyond the obvious copulatory connotations of the theme, the conference will explore the broad ramifications of labeling an act or object a ‘fake.’”

I’m perfectly prepared to believe these folks know a great deal about faking it. If the Center for 21st Century Studies is, in its own way, a commentary on the century ahead, what is its message? I suppose it says the humanities as represented in the world of American universities have at last reached their angle of recline, the point where they stop rolling and, exhausted, come to a stop. C21 is an expression of complacent happiness with gestures meant to look sprightly and defiant, no matter that they come across as a bland hum.

I do see something of the 21st century prognosticated in this Center. The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee showcases the Center for the academic celebrities it attracts and its sense of self-importance. Thus we have a public university that sups on taxpayer funds and can’t think of any better way to make the case for the humanities than this celebration of fashionable nihilism, where even the word “Center” has to be read ironically. We don’t really need a whole lot more evidence that our current system of higher education has a wobbly future. But should we need an additional bit of testimony, Time, thou thief, add this to your lists.



Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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