Speaking of Narcissism

Just a quick dispatch from the higher ed front-

The other day I was talking to my upper-division social science writing students about how humanities and social science departments feel pressured to justify their places on university campuses. What this has led to is both fields trying to be more like the hard sciences.  This has been disastrous for the humanities, as “theory” and identity politics have supplanted reading and writing as the discipline’s core. As for the social sciences, by demanding to be taken as seriously as the big bully on campus, they’ve only made their own efforts look like cheap imitations of the real thing.

I’ll have more to say about how humanities departments have destroyed themselves in due time, but that’s not what I want to do now.  What interested me was my students’ reactions when I used the term “navel-gazing.” Most of them laughed. When I asked why they were laughing, a young man (who seems bright and serious) in the front of the class said that he had never heard that phrase before, and that seemed to hold true for most of his classmates. This shocked me, as it is a phrase that I feel like I run into quite often in book reviews, political discussions, and take-downs of particularly out of touch cultural figures. I’ll spare you a sermon about what this incident says about what college students are and are not reading. Instead, I will paste some of the entries from the OED on this and related phrases below, as I find them fascinating. I particularly like the reference to Los Angeles. Feel free to accuse me of navel-gazing.

navel-gazing n. = navel contemplation

-1959   Canad. Jrnl. Econ. & Polit. Sci. 25 242   Contemporary Americans are inclined to regard such activities as navel-gazing, and to be more interested in the practical utility of models and specific operational techniques.
-1972   Publishers Weekly 10 July 27/2   David Obst has no monopoly on national navel-gazing.
-1990   Independent 27 July 19/6   Navel-gazing has taught these men and women to accept that there has to be someone in authority for the firm to work.

navel-contemplation n. meditation or contemplation, esp. of a self-absorbed, complacent, or profitless kind

-1921   D. H. Lawrence Let. 2 May (1962) II. 650   Your Nirvana is too much a one-man show: leads inevitably to navel-contemplation.
-1974   Times 27 June 18/3   To fight off the navel-contemplation mood induced by our move of office.
-1986   Q Oct. 76/1   Writing with these musicians has forced Simon to look up from navel-contemplation towards the open sky of entertainment.

navel-contemplator n. = omphalopsychite n. at omphalo- comb. form ; (also more widely) a person who indulges in navel-contemplation.

-1856   R. A. Vaughan Hours with Mystics I. vi. vii. 300   They call these devotees Navel-contemplators.
-1986   Financial Times (Nexis) 11 Apr. i. 19   We are in Los Angeles where the sun shines, the night life sparkles, and navel-contemplators of the world unite.

omphaloskepsis n. (also omphaloscepsis)  [ < omphalo- comb. form + ancient Greekσκέψις inquiry (see scepsis n.)] = omphaloscopy n.

-1925   A. Huxley Those Barren Leaves v. iv. 366   The flesh dies… And there’s an end of your omphaloskepsis.
-1952   H. Ingrams Hong Kong i. 22   The British saw London as the world’s capital. Omphaloscepsis has always been one of the world’s troubles.
-1983   Verbatim Summer 23/1   Presumably, one arrives at game theory through omphaloskepsis.

omphalomancy n.  [ < omphalo- comb. form + -mancy comb. form; compare French †omphalomantie (1752), omphalomancie (1868 in Littré)] divination by the navel, esp. the art or practice of divining the number of future children a woman is to have by counting the number of knots on the umbilical cord of a baby born to her (obs. rare); (in extended use) the art or skill of predicting or estimating numbers of people (rare).

-1652   J. Gaule Πυς-μαντια 165   Omphelomancy, [divining] by the navell.
-1892   New Sydenham Soc. Lexicon,   Omphalomancy, the prophesying of the number of future children a woman will have according to the number of knots on the navel-string of the child born.
-1987   Amer. Jrnl. Sociol. 93 210   The last chapter is a brief exercise in omphalomancy, an estimate of intellectual progeny in leading roles.
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