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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The futility of the humanities

Dear Internet friends, this humble blog is getting ready to go on vacation.  I know, I know, how can I go on “vacation” when I spent most of the day yesterday playing golf with Jamie?  (18th hole: Jamie takes driver, 7 iron, 7 iron to the green on a par 4.  Earlier this month, he picked up his first pars, one on the fiendishly difficult par-3 5th and one on the par-3 8th, which required him to hit his tee shot over water.  Sure enough, the first time he cleared the water, he chipped to within 15 feet and then drained the putt.  He chortled in his glee.  As did I.) But this is a very special vacation, the Seekrit Location of which can be gleaned from this old thread, and while I’m gone, this humble blog will lie quiet until mid-July or thereabouts.

Before I go, though, I need to make good on my promise (from this recent post) to write some more stuff on the place of the humanities in today’s society today.  Since I have to do one last gig before I take off on vacation, and since the gig happens to be a conference titled “Beyond Utility and Markets: Articulating the Role of the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century,” I thought it would make sense to begin this post where I end my contribution to that symposium, namely, with the closing passage from William Deresiewicz’s recent Nation review essay on the new wave of Darwinist literary criticism:

There is much talk among the literary Darwinists and their allies about not wanting to go back to the days of “old-boy humanism,” with its “impressionistic” reading and “belletristic” writing. (Only in English departments could good writing be considered a bad thing.) But no matter the age or gender of the practitioner, any really worthwhile criticism will share the expressive qualities of literature itself. It will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid. It will be a product of its times, though it will see beyond those times. It will not satisfy the dean’s desire for accumulable knowledge, the parent’s desire for a marketable skill or the Congressman’s desire for a generation of technologists. All it will do is help us understand who we are, where we came from and where we’re going. Until the literary academy is willing to stand up in public and defend that mission without apology, it will never find its way out of the maze.

OK, well, certainly Deresiewicz knows that the standard complaint about “belletristic” writing is not that it’s well written.  Traditionally, “belletrism” suggests a kind of glib, breezy dilettantism, the kind of thing for which this blog is deservedly notorious.  So let’s get that straight.  But after that glib, breezy parenthesis, the rest of the paragraph is quite wonderful.  And I say so not only because it agrees so nicely with my conclusion in my 2003 essay, “The Utility of the Arts and Humanities,” where I write,

if we understand human history in its historicity, there will be no final answers to any of the questions we might pose about the American Civil War or the rise of the caliphate or the Edict of Nantes or the emergence of homo/hetero classifications for sexuality or any other significant historical event or process; no final interpretations in literature, anthropology, dance, philosophy, or music; no answers that cannot be challenged and answered again from fresh social and historical perspectives.  This is what we humanists do:  we try to determine what it all means, in the broadest sense of “it” and “means,” and just as important, how it all means.

No, I think Deresiewicz’s final paragraph is quite wonderful all on its own.  Its agreement with stuff I believe is just extra bonus points.

And even better, Deresiewicz’s essay contains a bunch of things I wish I’d said, like the conclusion of this piquant paragraph:

Again and again, Darwinian criticism sets out to say something specific, only to end up telling us something general. An essay that purports to explain Shakespeare’s preeminence as a playwright argues instead that drama appeals to us because it portrays the social dynamics of small human groups (as evidenced by the fact that Shakespeare’s casts range from eighteen to forty-seven characters). [Brian] Boyd devotes a hundred pages to the Odyssey without saying anything he couldn’t have said with Anna Karenina or Middlemarch or Proust. The discussion is nothing more than an illustration of Darwinian ideas, not an explication of Homeric meanings. Indeed, it’s an illustration of largely one idea, that before an artist can even worry about meanings, he needs to figure out how to hold his audience’s attention. If the point sounds banal, that is squarely within the emerging disciplinary tradition. I have read any number of Darwinian essays about Pride and Prejudice (one critic calls it their “fruit fly"), but I have yet to read one that told me anything interesting. The idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.

Now, I haven’t yet read Boyd’s book (I’m slated to review it for the same place I reviewed Alan Sokal’s book last year), so I’ll reserve judgment about that, of course; I’m encouraged to see that Deresiewicz says that Boyd is “a clearer and more careful thinker than most of these other writers,” because those other writers are people like Denis Dutton, whose work has always seemed to me to be a variation on “the giraffe has a long neck, and the elephant has a long trunk, and therefore humans make abstract sculptures, just so!  Thus I have refuted Judith Butler!” But, even with judgment reserved, I have to say I do love Deresiewicz’s final sentence, the idea that the novel is about mate selection does not count as an original contribution.  Besides, everyone knows that Pride and Prejudice is not about mate selection.  Hart Crane’s The Bridge is about mate selection, as is Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and that’s where your literary Darwinism really comes in handy.

But I can only admire Deresiewicz’s essay so much, you know, because there are a couple of really false notes in it.  Here’s the worst of ‘em:

The humanities, meanwhile, are undergoing their own struggle for survival within the academic ecosystem. Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated. As the Darwinists are quick to point out, a lot of this suffering is self-inflicted. In literary studies in particular, the last several decades have witnessed the baleful reign of “Theory,” a mash-up of Derridean deconstruction, Foucauldian social theory, Lacanian psychoanalysis and other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense. Theory, which tends toward dogmatism, hermeticism, hero worship and the suppression of doctrinal deviation—not exactly the highest of mental virtues—rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural “difference,” is dead set against the notion of human universals. Theory has led literary studies into an intellectual and institutional cul-de-sac, and now that its own energies have been exhausted (the last major developments date to the early ‘90s), it has left it there.

This is the kind of thing “Landru” was saying in that recent thread, and I think it’s worth taking up at some length.  So here we go, at some length.

First: there’s a grain of truth in there about the dogmatism and hermeticism associated with Theory.  I touched lightly on that phenomenon in my opening post on the great Valve-Theory’s Empire Wars of 2005, which led this theory-besotted blog to develop the series known as “Theory Tuesdays.” In one of the better contributions to that debate, John McGowan acknowledged,

There is evidence of group-think out there. Let me give an example that bugged me for years. For a long time (happily that time now seems over), lots of people in literary studies knew that if Habermas said it, it must be wrong. The man couldn’t get a fair hearing in certain circles. The reasons for this failure in open-mindedness are many and complex. But we certainly should not discount the bad effects of a lousy job market and of the increasing pressure to publish. Conformity will result when it is very hard to get—and to keep—a place at the Theory’s Empire table.

(The passage has disappeared from the Internets but can be found on page 22 of this fine dead-tree publication, thanks to John Holbo.)

The “if Habermas said it, it must be wrong” era isn’t quite over, as evidenced by the response of some of the Theory crowd to What’s Liberal; that response went something like, “it’s all very well and good to talk about the separation of powers and the relative autonomy of civil society as forms of ‘liberalism,’ but everyone knows that liberalism is really just a stalkinghorse for the imperialist Enlightenment project of universal reason and also cannot account for its imbrication in the system of power/knowledge.” People can write this stuff in their sleep, and some actually do.  Anyway, the claim that Theory involves hero worship is sometimes true.  But then, not everyone who does theory worships Theory’s heroes, and there are plenty of people who hate Theory and worship anti-Theory heroes of their own.

Second: when Deresiewicz charges that Theory “rejects the possibility of objective knowledge and, in its commitment to the absolute nature of cultural ‘difference,’ is dead set against the notion of human universals,” again, there’s a grain of truth there.  Those of us in the humanities who know something about human biology—and this group would include Richard Powers, whose most recent novel Deresiewicz disdained for telling us too much about human biology—tend to agree that the Theory wing reaches for its guns when it hears the term “human universals.” But as for “objective knowledge”—my stars!  What is this thing called “objective knowledge”?  Can you explain it for me?  Can you give me an example of it?  (And don’t give me an example of a brute fact, like “carbon is the sixth element in the periodic table.” Give me an example of something that humans know objectively, independently of their sense impressions, beliefs, etc.) And then, when you’ve done all that, can you give me an explanation of what this appeal to “objective knowledge” is doing in an essay that insists that criticism “will be personal, because art is personal. It will not be definitive; it will not be universally valid”?  Because I could use an objective explanation of what’s going on here.

But enough with the grains of truth already!  Let’s get to the really annoying stuff.

Budgets are shrinking, students are disappearing, faculty positions are being lost, institutional prestige has all but evaporated.

All of these things are true: our budgets are shrinking, our faculty positions are being lost, and our institutional prestige has all but evaporated.  All of these things are true, except the bit about the students.  Honest to Moloch, I’m beginning to think nobody takes me seriously when I cite the Digest of Higher Education Statistics, and that makes me sad.  But go ahead and click that link!  Discover there the shocking and surprising truth—that English enrollments plummeted between 1970 and 1980, from 63,914 degrees to 31,922, and then rebounded thereafter, reaching the 50,000 mark in 1990 and hovering in that vicinity ever since.  In other words, during the years when Theory was at its peak, when everybody knew that Habermas was wrong and that anything Gayatri Spivak told you three times was true, the English major actually drew in tens of thousands of new students, some of whom may actually have liked the fact that their literature classes were places they could read and think and talk about gender and sexuality and textuality and even some of that power/knowledge flimflammery. (And in graduate programs, where Theory was thickest, enrollments soared:  to take one readily-available measure (.pdf), 3,299 humanities doctorates were awarded in 1987, 5,109 in 2007.)

Besides, everybody knows that the decline of the humanities, with regard to funding and prestige, has nothing to do with student enrollment.  It has to do with the Sokal Hoax, which proved once and for all that everything Sokal’s fans can’t stand is objectively wrong.  But since Janet has promised to bury me alive and cover me with quicklime if I ever mention the Sokal Hoax again, I have to offer an alternate theory of What Went Wrong with the Humanities.  And I have decided that the real reason that people no longer trust or respect humanists is that some of us write solemn essays about how their elite educations have rendered them incapable of making small talk with plumbers.  Call it the Higher David Brooksism.  (A serious aside: if your plumber is wearing a Red Sox cap and talks with a thick Boston accent, and you can’t even say a few words to him about the recent history of the Red Sox, that’s not the fault of your elite education.  It’s just you.  Sociability fail.)

More seriously, and on a less personal note: the truly false note in this lament about the baleful reign of Theory is this.

… other assorted abstrusiosities, the overall tendency of which has been to cut the field off from society at large and from the main currents of academic thought, not to mention the common reader and common sense.

To paraphrase the mighty Fafblog, “Oh no! Not common sense! That’s where all my friends live!” Certainly, we can’t have a form of literary criticism that cuts the field off from common sense.  Literary criticism should be devoted to the elaboration of insights that pretty much anybody could come to, and that most people would agree with.

And has Theory and its assorted abstrusiosomousiosites cut the field off from “society”?  Undoubtedly, because that’s where all my friends live, too.  Back in 1970, the field of literary criticism was part of society, and was even mentioned in the society pages of the New York Times.  Then Theory came along, and M. H. Abrams never appeared on The Tonight Show—or in the pages of the Times—again. 

But the claim that Theory has cut the field of literary studies off from “the main currents of academic thought” is surely the strangest claim of all.  Because if there’s one thing that Theory clearly did, for good or for ill (mainly for good, I think, but with my usual caveats), it established a kind of interdisciplinary esperanto for humanists, artists, and social scientists.  As Michèle Lamont put it in one of her guest-posts at Crooked Timber:

The relationship between philosophy and the humanities—where is it going in substantive terms? Is philosophy truly so disciplinarily isolated? With the progressive importation of French structuralism and post-structuralism over the last thirty some years, “European theory”—which generally means French, but also German and sometimes British theory) has become lingua franca across a number of humanities disciplines and interpretive social sciences and has allowed English and comparative literature experts to converse with art historians, architects, musicologists, anthropologists, etc. In philosophy, the continental tradition remained marginal. The influence of analytical philosophy facilitated other forms of interdisciplinary exchanges with fields such as cognitive psychology, linguistics, legal theory, etc. We have many forms of interdisciplinary dialogues, which function on different kinds of shared cognitive platforms—different currencies.

Interesting, is it not, when you adopt a wider disciplinary perspective than that provided by Deresiewicz?  Suddenly it looks like philosophy might have been isolated from the rest of the arts, humanities and interpretive social sciences, and “theory” might have been the means by which scholars conversed across the disciplines of English and comparative literature, art history, architecture, musicology, anthropology, etc.  For really—and I think we’re in the realm of objective human knowledge here—there’s no plausible way to claim that when literary studies started talking about Foucault, the discipline cut itself off from history and political theory and sociology and philosophy and anthropology. 

Now, it’s always possible to claim that the rise of Theory and its spread across the disciplines is responsible for the decline in funding and prestige in certain sectors of the humanities and interpretive social sciences.  I think that claim would be contestable, but it is not implausible, since there might indeed be some correlation between “challenging common sense” and “losing funding and prestige.” But you really can’t claim that the rise Theory cordoned off literary critics and left us unable to converse with people in other disciplines.  Because that would be just silly and blinkered and also wrong.

OK, I’m off to talk about these things with a bunch of people from the arts and humanities and sciences.  I’ll check in when I can.


Posted by Michael on 06/24 at 09:19 AM
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