‘I Sing the Body Electric’: Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize and Academic Silos


What is a writer? What is a Digital Humanist? These sound like disparate questions, but they both are based on the academy of division that has grown up over the past century and more, particularly in American universities. Specializations are created and claims are staked. You’re either on the bus, as Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters pointed out, or you are not.

In The New York Times the other day, staff writer Anna North baldly claimed that Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature “is a disappointing choice” because it was not awarded “to a writer.” He is a “brilliant lyricist” but the committee missed “the opportunity to honor a writer.”

That’s the problem with silos, in a nutshell.

North goes on to claim that the Nobel Prize should affirm “that fiction and poetry still matter.” But what are song lyrics, if not poetry? Why create a division where one is, quite frankly, not needed? After all, Walt Whitman used the words “sing” or “singing” quite often in his poetry, “Song of Myself” even being the title of his biggest work. The first line of The Iliad contains the word ἄειδε (to sing).

Giving Dylan the Nobel in Literature simply broadens a field artificially narrowed in ways that are, actually, classist and elitist. Dylan has written poetry that is not song as well as other things—an expansion from one activity quite in keeping with other Nobel laureates (and with North, for that matter). Defining him out of “literature” serves little purpose—unless one wants to make literature a special art, somehow above others.

Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg, in the middle of the last century tried to divide art into High Culture, “Masscult” and “Midcult” (Macdonald) and avant-garde and kitsch (Greenberg). The only thing, to them, that counts as “literature” is that “setting itself off—joyously, implacably—from most of its fellow citizens, not only from the Masscult depths but also from the agreeable ooze of the Midcult swamp” (74). North, even if unconscious of it, reflects this attitude when she writes that fiction and poetry (in her limited definition of them) “are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.” She tries to weasel out of the elitism implicit in this by claiming that popular music has its own means of recognition, its own prizes… but the snobbery of her separate-but-equal position shines through when it is seen within the context of past arguments. Pop music, the assumption is, just doesn’t have the value of real literature. It is kitsch.

What has that got to do with Digital Humanities?

I would have thought that the growth of ‘digital’ studies would have necessitated a breaking out of disciplinary silos in academia just as the bringing in of ‘high art’ sensibilities has done to popular music, erasing—or, at least, easing—boundaries. Instead, we now have people who have claimed DH as their own, making it as much its an exclusive thing as literature has become. As a student of media and culture, I’ve been involved in areas claimed by DH for at least the decade since publication of my The Rise of the Blogosphere. I saw what I was doing as simply an expansion from my work relating to film—and that grew from my background as a student of literature. I was not moving into a new field, nor was I helping create one. All I thought I was trying was to make connections, to build tunnels and bridges rather than creating barriers.

At its heart, literature is entertainment and media are means of distribution (they have become much more, of course, but that’s the genesis). Any attempt to divide entertainment into high and low art creates fields filled with landmines of ‘genre,’ ‘originality,’ ‘craft,’ ‘elegance’ and more. Macdonald, writing in the 1950s, saw the films of Charlie Chaplin as art—but the comedian’s work was not seen that way thirty years earlier. To date, nobody whose fame is based solely on screenwriting has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, though screenwriting can be as much literature as stage drama, which is well represented among the laureates. Ingmar Bergman, Billy Wilder, Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa… yes, there are plenty of awards for movies, but aren’t the screenplays of these and others works literature as well?

By the same token, almost all of us researching and writing within the humanities today are working in and with the digital world; there needn’t be division between those in DH and others. My attention has been turning to the material artifacts of media (and the means of media production) and their cultural impact, looking even at such simple questions as the difference in effect of hardcover versus pulp publication. Even that question is colored by the digital, for its importance today is heightened by the expansive possibilities for presentation of a “book.” I hate the idea that what I am doing needs to be either inside or outside of an artificial new field, one as arbitrary in its boundaries (and as self-serving) as the conception of “literature” in the minds of those who see it, unconsciously or not, as an elite art.

Like many others (I’ve recently found), I’ve discovered I’m excluded from DH because I haven’t joined the club. I haven’t bothered to obtain the membership card to present at the door, a card one gets through rubbing shoulders with the others who see themselves as part of the DH crowd. I was much happier when there was no door at all, just as I was happiest as a reader before I discovered that my favorite detective, spy and science-fiction writers weren’t producing literature but that other favorite writers were. To me, they were all good, even when different; I feel the same, today, ranking James Lee Burke, John Le Carré and William Gibson with (dare I say it?) Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon. One of my favorite writers of the 1980s, Gloria Naylor, recently died without the ensuing fanfare one has come to expect for a writer of “real” literature. Yet real she was, too.

That North’s argument is about exclusion is confirmed in her last paragraph, where she avers that Dylan is “in another field,” not literature. We’ve had too much of this type of thinking for too long, in literature and in academia.

7 thoughts on “‘I Sing the Body Electric’: Bob Dylan, the Nobel Prize and Academic Silos

  1. Well said. Sadly, I think you’re right that North’s claim, however inadvertently or unconsciously, merely revives the 50s mass culture debates. In these, two, historical myopia and parti pris distorted the fuller conceptions of culture genuinely requisite to talking about genres. How could anyone who knew the history of poetry and poetry discussion at the turn of the 18thc. dismiss songs as something plainly different from literature? THAT is philistinism!

      • Another lyricist, himself a Nobel laureate, I should have mentioned is Rabindranath Tagore, a favorite of mine in high school and college. If one looks at the accomplishments of laureates in literature, one sees that many of them worked a great deal outside of the confines of “fiction and poetry” as North imagines them. Boundaries have rarely constrained them.

  2. Beyond words and above song Bob Dylan has vision — “the order is rapidly changing”.
    Was that fifty years ago or more? Has this discussion missed the bus by half a century.

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