An Outrage Summit

This past week, I probably made a mistake in agreeing to help coordinate the North Dakota University System’s Arts and Humanities Summit here on the beautiful campus of the University of North Dakota. Of course, the funds might suddenly evaporate as the state and the NDUS braces for budget cuts, but that’s not something I can worry about now.

In any event, I am not one to let reality interfere with a bad plan. 

As I started to think about how organize or coordinate the work of arts and humanities faculty across the state, I tried to steer my thinking away from some of the more fruitful recent conversations: The Bakken Oil Boom, Entrepreneurial Humanities, and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) and THEMAS (Technology, Humanities, Engineering, Math, Arts, and Science), or whatever. Instead, I drifted increasingly toward looming budget cut, the role of the administration in shared governance, and the upcoming national, state, and local elections. One thing connected these phenomena in my head: outrage.

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What if we hosted an Arts and Humanities Summit and made it forum for outrage. That’s right: the entire event would constitute an airing of grievances. From studies of campus space, to rampant agism, sexism, administrative incompetence, bureaucratic overreaches, paper work, assessment, compliance, and the erosion of shared governance, faculty in the Arts and Humanities across the state have plenty of reasons to be aggrieved. 

What is more interesting is the use of outrage (and outright rage) to express their frustrations with the system. I’d like to use the summit to explore outrage itself as a form of academic, political, and public discourse. I expect that a focus on (out)rage would attract the usual smattering of thoughtful and critical essays that consider the role of outrage as a challenge to prevailing hyper-rational neoliberal discourse, or as a sincere expression of exasperation or even the shifting definition of outrage as a way to marginalize the inconvenient, incompatible, or otherwise unyielding voices. Outrage provides a way to push back against the stifling conformity of professional life and culture. Social media, The Donald, and the “town hall meeting” all provide public venues (yeah, I consider The Donald a venue) for projecting outrage into the crystalline fractures of the public sphere. Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t include some critical engagement with the Jeremiad as a genre that lends often lends itself to outrage in the public sphere. (It also happens that one of the authors of the best recent treatment of Jeremiads in American politics can bring outrage as well as anyone I’ve ever met!).  

The great thing about this summit is that we could arrange not just for calm, detached academic talk about outrage, but also to offer a forum for outrage. I’m sure every campus in the system has its own expert practitioners of the art of outrage. What if we got some of the most deeply outraged faculty in the system to come to UND and to BE OUTRAGED. Like the famous dozens of early rap music, we could arrange a series of lecterns and invite each of the arts and humanities faculty to drop some genuine, earnest, sincere, outrage on us.

Maybe it’s delusional, but I can even imaging recruiting a couple outrage artists from the community. Terry Bjerke, a local candidate for mayor, brings a particular brand of outrage to the fore. Al Carlson, an outspoken and outraged legislature, can drop outrage like few others in the state. Again, it’s not so much what they say, it’s how the say it. A summit dedicated to outrage would probe the tender intersection of sincerity, conviction, and public display to critique key aspects of contemporary political and professional theatre. Plus, it would be amazing to bring together the most deeply aggrieved and outraged members of the community and celebrate their intensity, conviction, and art.  

File this one in the idea box.

7 Comments

  1. I think the idea is outrageous! Go for it, Bill. It’s the best idea I’ve seen all day.

    Reply

  2. There are things I like about the idea. The problem is, nobody likes to hear people complain about their job, and that’s how it will be perceived. People don’t understand how the education system works, they don’t understand the funding, and they certainly don’t understand research. All that most non-academics really identify with is their own personal relationships with their teachers (and how those teachers make them feel in class). I think some scholars might find it satisfying, but I think it will play in the media like spoiled childrens’ tantrums and that would be detrimental to the cause.

    Reply

    1. Jack,

      The goal is to make outrage the object of interrogation rather than to focus on the topic of outrage. We could, perhaps usefully, balance the outrage platform by having people who are outraged about lots of different things: education, politics, economics, races, et c. That way it isn’t just people outraged about their jobs, but the broad swath of outrage that cuts through public performance.

      Again, I don’t have the answer to outrage and I can’t even place it in an academic and intellectual context. I do appreciate outrage though as the public display of emotional sincerity that is both exciting and horrifying. I can’t turn away!! So I think having appropriately outraged faculty, politicians, and members of the community, dropping outrage to an appreciative audience would be good fun and an enthralling spectacle.

      You in?

      Bill

      Reply

      1. I guess I’d have to see how it pans out. Keep me in the loop. But also, since this is a scholarly forum, we would have to make sure that the performance aspect of it doesn’t over shadow the academic–and that the outrage is not myopic to the education system or anti-intellectualism, or only from the left. I have no objection to taking risks, but in a culture as opposed to emotional expression as this one is, your idea would have to be played perfectly to succeed. (Not to mention, there is a strong risk that some outrage will simply manifest itself as racism/.sexism/etc.) It all feels like it could become very adolescent very quickly.

  3. Jack,

    You know me, right? Adolescent is my middle name.

    And calling outrage adolescent is one of the very ways that we try to marginalize it as a practice and the objects that prompted an outraged response. Again, my interest is not in the object toward which outrage is directed, but the practice and experience of outrage both on the viewer and the rager. After all, the performative is the academic so I can’t see how it could overshadow anything.

    Bill

    Reply

  4. Really? You’re “outraged” that you are being deprived of an endless supply of taxpayer money? If you want to be outraged, change your focus to the barbarians who are not only deliberately destroying history along with historical sites but cutting off the heads of all the archaeologists they can find

    Reply

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