True or false, what is said about men often figures as large in their lives, and above all in the fate that befalls them, as what they do.
— Les Misérables, translation by Christine Donougher
“The Chair” balances legitimate pessimism with practical hope. In an academic culture where your identities may suggest that you’re always in the wrong, there is no clean escape (for anyone) from the catch 22 of someone’s definition of justice.
Like all comedy, “The Chair” revels in the constant tension between meaning and language. “If anybody asks, we didn’t fuck,” Professor Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass) says to an eager female undergraduate while rushing out the door to handle a different public falling-out; an innocuous comment from the chair, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) about the gravity of one of Bill’s actions ignites accusations of corruption from the first female chair of color, someone who – by choice and external mandate – is to reform the stodgy environment of this fictional quasi-Ivy, Pembroke College.
“The Chair” asks what happens when we are eager to take language out of context? What happens when we are pressured to “pick sides” at the expense of all we presume to be factual or truthful? I’m reminded of Trevor Noah’s defense of comedy, and Stephen West’s outline of logical fallacies in the “Philosophize This!” podcast. Disregarding intent allows the viewer to assign their own; the speaker, in this era when people “should just know better,” is at the mercy of overinterpretation and vulnerable to numerous straw men. If language is wonderfully ambiguous, then anything said in a language can be interpreted in many creative ways. When you throw in immense privilege and fragile egos, as “The Chair” does so splendidly, you get a group of smart people making rationales rather than following reason.
“The Chair” follows professors more so than students, which worked for me, but it did open some plot holes. As Karen Tongson wrote in Slate, it’s unlikely that students from this elite institution would be so eager to separate context from substance. These are thinking young people, not TikTok automatons, despite whatever stereotypes older generations may envision. Yet we all know the psychological studies and historical movements that suggest people will do anything to “fit in,” whether to let violence pass, get a loan for plastic surgery, send their kids to private school when they know public school needs their funds. Cancel culture, which I’d define as the social pressure to put a premature end to critical thought in order to garner a trending form of social prestige, is undoubtedly a real force, sometimes good sometimes bad, and it permeates cultures around the U.S. from academe to the police force, corporate America to social non-profits. To me, “The Chair” is a satire of cancel culture — its noble intentions distantly related to real activism, but more prominently, its misguided or narcissistic tendencies.
But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that “The Chair” satirizes cultural hegemony. The true fools in this series are the older white male professors and administrators who make more than anyone else, are consummate bores, literally can’t tell their farts apart, and command the lowest enrollment numbers in the college. The forces that keep them in place are innumerable and structure American life: white supremacy, neoliberalism and rapacious capitalism, patriarchy. These forces are so omnipotent and omnipresent that they would make any question to their foundations – attempts like ‘cancel culture’ or ‘social justice warrior’ or ‘creative pedagogy’ – seem disingenuous, irrelevant, and risible. The one young faculty of color, Yaz McKay (Nana Mensah), ultimately considers leaving the department after the man recommending her for tenure, Elliot Rentz (Bob Balahain) fails to see his own immense racism, agism, and misogyny. In “The Chair,” the conservative forces largely win, and education remains a pet apparatus of neoliberalism.
“The Chair” reaches into the central tension of American higher education: the institutional and personal allegiance between profit or truth. As Imani Perry, who chairs the African American Studies department at Princeton, put it in Vice: “I loved that they showed the PR cynicism that exists throughout academia. Institutional reputation is frequently a stronger driver than equity, inclusion and academic freedom. And that does produce all sorts of crises when it comes to creating community.”
“The Chair” offers no solution to the labyrinth problems of white supremacy et al.
But it does propose a remedy to this hyper age of pre-templated incivility — the Twitter reflex, “Where human kindness comes to die,” as Paisley Rekdal writes in Appropriate?
Literature is one balm — possibly even a cure.
In “The Chair,” poems are how characters here restore their humanity: Holland Cotter shouting about why Chaucer is a badass after identifying the young man who wrote her a nasty review on RateMyProfessor (her example from Chaucer: a suitor wants to kiss a woman and ends up making out with her butthole). Students and professors, even while the professional lines separating them have to remain firm, recognize each other by completing T.S. Elliot lines. Administrative hacks who enable the racist system to prance along are outed as charlatans by their misalignment of quote to Shakespeare play. Gradually in each episode, we learn that it is literature and teaching that are Professor Kim’s true passions. Her soul (her soul!) is saved as her daughter, father, and partner recall her true passions.
Despite being a department of language, “The Chair” concludes that truth lies beyond syntax. Rather than nailing people down to the passing words they choose, “The Chair” asks what is the difference between performing good and doing good. Are you simply seen as a voice for change, or when the stakes truly are high, do you aim to help — even to your own detriment? How does one achieve good when, at institutions of higher learning, it feels that you have to constantly capitulate to short-sighted, profit-horny forces? Tongson put this perfectly in her review: “Crucially, the series also shows us that universities, caricatured as they are by the right as bastions of progressive thought, are actually deeply entrenched, culturally conservative institutions whose foremost concern is liability“
I couldn’t think of a better song than Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma” to run through “The Chair,” particularly these lines that end a perfectly crafted story: “Through the pain, I always tell the truth.”