One of the struggles of public humanities is that it often reinforces old hierarchies or inscribes new ones (privatization, any one?). Or, to put this differently, it wants to share humanities with the masses without unleashing any crowd power. In Elias Canetti’s language, it wants to use the masses but maintain the fear of being touched. Which is one of the interesting aspects of Canetti’s account of the crowd – how temporary it is, how easy it is to slide into old distinctions, hierarchies, inequalities even after the emotional burst that results from being immersed in equality, ‘freedom,’ and a touch that one does not need to fear.
As he writes:
“Everyone belonging to such a crowd carries within him a small traitor who wants to eat, drink, make love and be left alone” (23).
Of course, in an era of budget cuts, of under-staffed programs, and increased labor, this small traitor often gets louder and larger. But it’s a traitor nonetheless, because engaging with publics should mean that one can no longer be simply left alone.
An interesting account of the gendered (among other things) experience of being a department administrator in International Journal of Communication 5 (2011) on Academic Labor. We pretend that universities foster democracy and are comprised of democratic classrooms, but neoliberalism ensures that faculty governance is a sham. This ensures, of course, that the university is one of the most slow-moving of institutions even as it shapes itself into a site of neoliberal flexibility:
“How do we deal with hostile or unresponsive administrators? How does a department head approach a dean, provost, chancellor, or president? This is a very tricky issue that workshops are fairly clear about. Lines of authority are fixed, and the university administration supports and throws its legal weight behind senior level administrators. We have to learn to get used to those above us in the chain of command. There is no recourse. If we seek advice from the provost’s office—the provost being the chief academic officer in a university and therefore the logical adjudicator between a department administrator and a dean—we are told to learn to deal with the dean while being admonished both for ever bringing the matter up, and for having shared or discussed any disagreement with our own faculty. One would not want the dean to feel that her/his faculty is actually meeting to discuss faculty governance and departmental affairs. Conversely, any questions posed to the dean can be answered: “If you do not like what I am doing, I can call in the provost.” It is a hermetically-sealed system. In a lighter tone, but no less serious, the provost’s staff may suggest that, if a particular dean does not work well, departmental heads could wait it out, as the dean will eventually be promoted. This latter piece of wisdom pretty much explains the widespread presence of less-than-enlightened administrators.“
Because the British empire controlled the sun (or detached time from Old Sol). In the words of one Scottish curmudgeon who wanted to stick to local time and have a few more minutes in bed each morning (sounds glorious right about now, doesn’t it?):
“John bull, we know, has a vast idea of his own superiority in every matter, and if he chooses also to prefer his own time, let the fat fellow be gratified, by all means. Only do not let us run the risk of being late, in our endeavor to humour him, by forestalling the advent of the sun” (“Greenwich Time” Blackwoods (1848): 356)
As his argument continues, I agree with it less and less, but I like the boldness of saying gratify the “fat fellow” and yet, a fact is a fact (i.e. the sun rises when it rises, your marathon time is your marathon time, etc.)