School is not cool. Academics have no style, the wrong attitude, and bad toys loaded with all the worst programs. The humanities have the appeal of a Game Boy stocked with a reference shelf of dictionaries, a twenty-five-year-old text-only interface, no special effects, and an operating system that could be outrun by cold honey. Oh yeah, and you're supposed to play this humanities game by yourself. Like WHO designed THAT? For the iPod-plugged-in, cell-phone-chatting, constantly messaging population of indulged, wired, upper-middle-class teens who are the payload for most university classrooms, the whole academic thing is just NOT. As for their aging professoriate (i.e., anyone older than the desktop computer), for whom programming a VCR was the dividing instant that separated the savvy survivors from those who were doomed to stay behind, well, many of them still think the word "browser" describes a person in the library stacks. Can you believe?
Crudely put, this is the point of Alan Liu's Laws of Cool. And the way to address this problem, or crisis, or cultural divide? Liu suggests that we use digital technology to demonstrate the viability of historical perspectives, that we draw on the usefully destructive power of creativity as defined by a tradition of radically experimental avant-garde art to define a cool style of humanities activity, and that this will fulfill a longing to return to some archaic condition of eye and mind-craft practice from which we have fallen (per romanticism) as from a state of cultural grace.
Huh? This prescription is probably as symptomatic of the problem Liu defines as it is an answer, though the impulse that drives his vision is certainly apt and timely, serious and earnestly committed to envisioning a future for academic humanities in a culture of information.
But is ours a culture of information? Or is it a culture of consumption? The difference is crucial. Information suggests flows, systems, and a functional infrastructure, cultural processes operating according to a paradigm of technological [End Page 241] efficiency. Information suggests a mode of hyper-rationality, engineered and optimized, formal and rule-bound. By contrast, consumption invokes the voluntary complicity of an economy fueled by desire. Lifestyle fantasies are the drug that pushes credit over the limit in a bloated (American) excess cycle of hyperbolic overindulgence. The current ideal of "democracy" is defined as the right to buy. Even before we reached the extreme perversions of current rhetoric of our now double-speak-warped administration, the consumer-pumped pattern of culture had taken hold. What the humanities can be and do in an entertainment arcade world—and how the academy will evolve—depends on more than style choices.
At stake is nothing less than the future of the humanities. To set a viable course for survival we have to unmask assumptions about what the humanities are. The humanities can't simply consist of a body of texts—many of which were deemed immoral and potentially harmful at the time they were published. Our students don't have the patience to read much of this work. It was written for an era in which the personal economy of time was very different than it is now. Maybe we should consider what we have to learn about "the humanities" from the world around us. A feedback loop between media culture and the academy should be more than an industry of academic conferences.
So if school definitely isn't cool, then what is? According to Liu, what's cool is something called "knowledge work," the specialized intellectual labor that has value in an entrepreneurial business climate. His study of the evolution and definition of knowledge work is driven by the worry that it is rendering the humanities obsolete. Knowledge workers get paid. Academic training is losing ground as a foundation for their professional advancement. Cool style and attitudes carry a mystique for folks in T-shirts with band-name logos who self-identify through their musical tastes or other fantasy identities. Hunched in their cubicles they are surrounded by thought balloons stating, "Really, I'm...