We Make Interestingness
ey folks, salut de Montréal! I’ve had “write articles for blog” on my to-do list for the last month or so, but then real life keeps on being inconvenient. At the moment, I’m in Montréal for the AAA meeting (American Anthropological Association), which is a massive 7000-person mega-conference. I gave a paper last Wednesday, spent the rest of the week going to far too many papers, dropped an obscene amount of money at The Bay buying proper Canadian winter clothing, and now I’m preparing to go give a guest lecture in a seminar at UQÀM (Université de Québec à Montréal). I’m still planning on finishing the series of summaries of my dissertation chapters—and I have an interesting report on the BerMuDa weekend in Berlin, too—but here’s a short little thing to tide us all over. Oh, and by the way, I heard that, way over at the Society for Ethnomusicology conference (SEM), I was awarded the Lise Waxer Student Paper prize for the paper I gave last year. Yay! Incidentally, the paper was drawn from one of my dissertation chapters on “liquidarity”.
So, I once made a sort of joke-motto with some fellow humanities grad students that went something like this: “The Humanities: We Make Interestingness.” This was in response to hearing for the zillionth time the well-worn argument that humanities departments are welfare cases, eating university resources and producing nothing of value, while life sciences, hard sciences, and economics produce patents and win research grants and attract big-ticket donations and so on. I thought, “Well, if we’re going to assess the value of academia solely on the basis of productive labor, then I can re-frame cultural work as a kind of production, too.”
I’ll admit that my original intention was largely parodic, but it felt to me like there was some truth behind it. Part of what folks like me do—especially those that work on popular culture—is to point to things, people, and activities in our cultural world and say, “Hey, this is actually really interesting: look at what it reveals / illustrates / complicates / etc.” The more everyday and unremarkable the thing, the more work we have to do extract the interestingness out of it and produce some kind of knowledge that enriches our understanding of worlds and people. For me, actually, the more a thing is banal, the more I see it as an enticement and a challenge. If something is boring or simple or mundane, it’s probably because I haven’t figured out what’s interesting about it yet. I sort of subscribe to the approach of those scholars of everyday life like Henri Lefebvre and Michel De Certeau: it’s in the most unremarkable aspects of daily life that the deepest workings of society are buried in plain view. I think that’s why I’ve always been fascinated with the supposedly “normal” things, too: what happened to declare this thing normal and not others? What are the politics involved in deeming things normal or otherwise?
OK, I have to run and tap-dance my way around EDM studies in front of a class in French. But maybe I’ll come back to this later. What do you think? Is the production of interestingness a production of value? Is it good for something? Is it disturbing to reduce academic work to the kind of capital it can generate?