In Defense of Imagination

From Public Books:

In his short story “The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu makes a case for imagination’s value: for its innate significance and material power. I teach “The Paper Menagerie” every year in my introduction to literary studies course at West Virginia University, and every year, it makes me and most of my students cry. Liu’s story charts the deterioration of a once tender relationship between a Chinese mother and her Chinese American son, figuring their connection through a set of magical paper animals. The creatures that Mom crafts out of recycled wrapping paper using zhezhi, or Chinese papercraft, are imbued with life, and Jack establishes a strong bond with all of the animals, especially Laohu, a tiger. But as a preteen, after a neighborhood child instigates a racist bullying campaign that centers around the menagerie, Jack distances himself from his mother and all that she stands for: her cultural practices; her papercraft; her racial difference. It’s only years after her death, after his girlfriend finds the menagerie in storage and Laohu comes alive once more, that Jack finally values his mom and realizes all that he’s lost.

In its emotional intensity and exquisitely crafted plot, “The Paper Menagerie” is a wonderful vehicle for reaching students, but the feature that really draws me back each time is its rich theory of art. For Liu, art’s power resides simultaneously in its three main elements: the creative process, the work itself, and the act of aesthetic appreciation. Liu registers this flexible and expansive theory of art through the trope of paper—this story’s dominant motif. Paper takes many forms in “The Paper Menagerie”: it’s a reusable resource (like the wrapping paper that Mom uses to craft her animals); a method of facilitating transnational connection (in the printed catalogs that Jack’s dad uses to meet Mom, who was then in Hong Kong); a metonym for immigration documentation (Mom needs papers to move to the US); and a medium for communicating a personal history (Laohu unfurls his body upon his revival, revealing a letter from Mom to her estranged son). It’s through art—through Laohu—that Mom is able to posthumously reconnect with Jack by narrating her life story, expressing her pain at his emotional distance and confirming her abiding love for him. It’s also through art that Jack is finally able to appreciate both his mother and his cultural heritage. Unlike the ineffectual paper tigers of idiom, Liu’s animate paper menagerie signifies art’s vitality: its liveliness and magic; its necessity and power.

Believing in art’s magic—in the power of creativity to bring imagined worlds to life—underpins every aspect of my work as an English professor, and never more so than this year, when both my job and its very purpose were under threat. As a professor at the now infamously beleaguered West Virginia University, a labor organizer with West Virginia Campus Workers, and a faculty senator engaging with a frequently hostile administration, my own reflections on art’s value, and more broadly of the liberal arts, have taken an acute turn.

In March 2023, WVU president E. Gordon Gee made the shock announcement that hundreds of faculty and staff would be subject to a reduction in force (RIF) and dozens of core educational programs would close. Since then, WVU employees have lived in a state of significant anxiety. By June 2023, 135 faculty and staff had lost their jobs. By July, nearly half of the remaining faculty were under review. By August, afflicted programs appealed their fates, defending themselves against drastic cuts that would see entire departments eliminated and others losing nearly half of all professors. By September, the board of governors had cut an additional 143 faculty at all ranks while an additional eight people were unilaterally laid off in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics. By October, faculty who’d been cut had received their notices of termination. By November, RIFed faculty had begun the process of appealing the university’s decisions; only one was successful. They’d also learned that, despite the best efforts of a team of DC and WV employment lawyers, their cases lacked the necessary common ground for a class action suit. By December, more people had learned that they would be let go; 16 people were RIFed in the Libraries and 9 people in the Teaching and Learning Commons. So far, 311 people have lost their jobs, with untold consequences for the university’s reputation, employee morale, the local economy, and the future educational opportunities of young West Virginians.

Narrated this way, the picture is bleak—and the mood in Morgantown is bleak indeed. Too many talented employees have lost their livelihoods because university leadership has seemingly decided that higher education should cater to market needs rather than cultivate independent thought and intellectual passion. President Gee’s insistence that there is no financial crisis, despite a well-publicized $45 million deficit, suggests that these unprecedented cuts are at least as much ideologically fueled as they are caused by taking on an unsustainable debt load and failing to convince Republican legislatures to increase spending on public universities. WVU’s administration continues to spend lavishly on their own comforts, including unnecessary flights on private jets. Meanwhile, more than 300 people and their families have lost their jobs and incomes, harming our local economy and the very fabric of our community.

But what’s happening at WVU is not an anomaly, except in scale. Since WVU announced its unprecedented cuts, administrators have announced layoffs at UNC Greensboro, SUNY Potsdam, the University of New Hampshire, and more. And it’s not just the humanities that are at risk, either; WVU’s sweeping cuts have impacted programs as diverse as math, chemistry, music, languages, public health, soil sciences, and education. Leadership teams across the country are coming for the liberal arts, selling the public an inferior product that’s been packaged by management consultancies, particularly Huron Consulting Group and rpk GROUP. What’s emerging is a radicalized belief that the public university is a place not to acquire deep knowledge but to learn basic job skills. In their commitment to market logics and the whims of a small sector of the right-wing electorate, an increasing number of university presidents have little time for independent thought or creative intellectual inquiry that might not bear immediately practical applications. In West Virginia, the current legislature has cast young people in the state as unworthy of having career aspirations beyond a handful of localized industries. The transformed university that Gee imagines as his legacy, from this, his last presidential post, is built on market logics that valorize skill acquisition and ignore the value of deep learning.

In August 2023, when uncertainty over my own employment and academic future was at its highest, and when all of us on campus were worried about our colleagues and students, teaching “The Paper Menagerie” offered a welcome reprieve. Immersed in an exquisitely crafted and conceptually complex story, I could share with my students the value of studying what you love. Unlike WVU’s leadership or the consultancies that it’s used to legitimize its actions, Liu rejects the oppressive dictates and dull uniformity of market logics. His account of the paper menagerie applauds experimentation and idiosyncrasy, curiosity and imagination—qualities that are not only dismissed by neoliberal advocates of market dominance but that cannot thrive under such conditions. Jack and the animals play together for years, sharing adventures that sometimes produce sheer pleasure and at other times lead to casualties: the water buffalo tries to wallow in soy sauce, only to discover that his paper feet soak up the liquid, damaging his capillaries and leaving him with a permanent limp. Laohu chases sparrows in the backyard but stops after “a cornered bird struck back in desperation and tore his ear.” And a shark drowns after Jack places him in water: the shark “became soggy and translucent, … the folds coming undone.” Yet these methods of failed experimentation also lead to discoveries: the buffalo learns to avoid liquids, Laohu learns to avoid sparrows, and Jack learns that paper sharks are not made for water—but that their tinfoil variant can swim. The process of deep learning, Liu suggests, requires imagination and creativity, experimentation and play, whether or not these activities yield profits or strengthen markets.

Link to the rest at Public Books

Having attended college in a different century, PG is in no position to provide informed commentary on the OP, but will say that shaking up need not be the same as shaking down.