Shiny Beads

Spent the weekend at a conference in New Orleans. The keynote speaker was Richard Lanham, who argues that the study of arts and letters is now more critical than ever. His logic runs as follows: the information economy is as far-reaching and transformational a change as those that took us from an agrarian base to an industrial one. There is, however, an important difference. Farmers sold calories and factories sold manufactured goods, both of which derived their economic value from scarcity. Ears of corn or tractors only have value if someone doesn't already have them. Scarcity, however, is hardly an issue in an information economy. We're drowning in the stuff. Moreover, it's consumption doesn't deplete it.

And that's why so many businesses have yet to understand this new economy. The old rules of supply and demand--all built around a world of making or growing stuff--no longer apply, so the so-called information economy is misnamed. Lanham argues we ought to think in terms of an attention economy because it's human attention that's scarce. It's what is actually being bought and sold now.

Enter the study of arts and letters, whose forte is sifting texts and images, interpreting them, and drawing attention to important ideas. So we ought to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and refuse to accept our marginalized status in higher education. Lanham says our day has come:
Training [is] badly needed in the new center of events in which we find ourselves. Business people know this. If you ask them what kind of training they would like us to give our students, uniformly they put first precisely the kind of training that the rhetorical paideia offered, a training in the word. They know this talent is the central one in an economy of attention. But how well do we cultivate it? Not very. Partly, it is because such training falls into the bailiwick of “composition,” and this bailiwick, in English departments, dwells in the basement of professional regard. But even more sadly, it is because we have lost our faith in verbal style.
And not only style and eloquence, but digital media, which can return us to the richness of the medieval illustrated manuscript. In other words, the prospects have never been brighter for those who wish to teach rhetoric, eloquence, writing, hermeneutics or art criticism. If only we would listen, Lanham argues, the world is crying out for us to make ourselves more relevant. Business needs us, the economy needs us, the world desperately needs us.

It was all quite heartening, unless, of course, you actually do love teaching actual poetry, which in any economy will remain as ornamental, useless and inconsequential as the beads hurled from the balconies of Bourbon Street.


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