Ain't It Cool?

Lit prof Alan Liu: 'I went to sleep one day a cultural critic and woke the next metamorphosed into a data processor'

The National Endowment for the Arts released a survey in July based on 2002 Census Bureau data that indicates just 56.6 percent of Americans had read a single book of any kind in the year prior. Yet, against a worldwide web of evidence to the contrary, many bookworms refuse to concede the diminished role of literature in a high-tech society. Alan Liu, a professor of English literature at UC-Santa Barbara, is not one of them. In his new book, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information(Chicago), Liu writes that "whether we should elegize or celebrate 'the death of literature' . . . is now beside the point."

Literature in the last two decades has become a school subject unbound. The critical theory and identity politics that emerged in a more diverse American academy in the 1970s deconstructed the patriarchal fiction of a white-members-only canon, opening literary study to more than sweetly musty books. University English departments now play de facto host to a broader discipline of Cultural Studies, in which any object—a fanzine, a Volvo, a Balinese cockfight—is a set of signs that can be read and interpreted as a text.

But when literature no longer possesses greater inherent value than any other text you can download from the Internet, then literature has become mere information. Liu writes in The Laws of Cool, "I went to sleep one day a cultural critic and woke the next metamorphosed into a data processor."

The immigrant son of an engineer, and no Luddite reactionary, Liu doesn't want to regress the study of literature to its 1950s incarnation as a gentleman's sport. Although he's an expert in English Romanticism—his first book, Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989), remains a must-read in that field—Liu was an early adopter of computers. "I bought an IBM PC, one of the first models they made, in 1982 dollars of $5,500 or something like that. And I was only making something like $11,000 that year," Liu tells the Voice.

While continuing to guide confused undergraduates through the metaphysical walkabouts of The Prelude, Liu in 1994 designed Voice of the Shuttle (vos.ucsb.edu), an ambitious online humanities resource. He also began work on a book, about the relationship of information culture to literature, that would occupy him for a decade. "The more I wrote, however, the more I kept being blocked by the problem of—as I conceive of it now—a popular aesthetic, which is dominant and much more important than a literary aesthetic. I call it 'cool.' "

When we talk about culture, we talk about whether or not something sucks. "No more beauty, sublimity, tragedy, grace, or evil: only cool or not cool," Liu writes. To reach disaffected students then, teachers have got to make literature cool. But that's no easy task. Children pick up what's cool and what isn't on the playground, but not inside a classroom.

More than just a pose, cool, Liu writes, is a "parallel system of learning—or just as accurately, antilearning—that turns away from an educational system it believes represents dominant knowledge culture, toward a popular culture whose corporate and media conglomerates, ironically are dominant knowledge culture." In other words, universities used to be our primary interpreters of culture, and just when knowledge itself has become a valued commodity and the humanities ought to enjoy a golden age of relevance, the networked office has already purchased the monopoly on information and its brave new philosophy.

One nation under an MBA president, "who prides himself on being incurious," Liu points out, our culture teems with the facile paradigms and dehumanizing rhetoric of downsizing. College administrators now insist as much as HMO executives on efficiency, even as they slash budgets, outsourcing labor to the higher-education version of the permanent temp, non-tenured faculty.

For the rapidly growing blue-collar class of office drones, cool lurks as a "shadow ethos," rebelling in stolen moments of on-the-job Web surfing. What other choice does a worker have whose literal and metaphorical vision have been confined to a computer screen? "Contemporary slack . . . has nowhere to go to be itself. Its only recourse is to disguise itself within the processes, procedures, and techniques of information technology."

Slack has its limits, and Liu thinks "it's time for the academy to have its say on the corporation and technology." In an information culture, the analytical skills developed by learning to read a book carefully are eye-openingly subversive. The Laws of Cool investigates contemporary management texts and reports that popular business theory unanimously emphasizes thinking outside the historical box. With innovation as its highest value, corporate culture advocates a quick march toward an ever progressive future. What the humanities offer in opposition, Liu argues, is the more nuanced, less optimistic perspective of history—"not of things created—the great, auratic artifacts treasured by a conservative or curatorial history—but of things destroyed in the name of creation."

Liu's book offers thoughtful suggestions about how the humanities can reclaim their cultural authority. But foremost, he challenges his university colleagues to join writers and artists in an effort to ethically hack corporate technology. In the future, nothing will be more cool, he believes, than destroying information. If Liu's idea sounds suspiciously cyberpunk, it is. The science fiction writer William Gibson is more influential than Marx on Liu's radical manifesto. Literature is dead, but it's the specter haunting information.

 
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