Thursday, March 27, 2014

Alan Liu: Reengaging the Humanities

Alan Liu week continues at New Savanna. Now I want to look at an interview he gave to Scott Pound at Amodern: Reengaging the Humanities. While the interview is worthwhile in its entirety I’ll select passages where Liu’s thinking (usefully) intersects with my own.

First, though, I want to cite a biographical passage which speaks to attitude and intuition. While talking about Bruno Latour’s interrogation of critique in the name of compositionalism Liu informs us that he’s “the son of a structural engineer and descended from a whole clan who were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. because they were engineers and builders.”


And I’m the son of a chemical engineer who spent his professional career in the coal business. Engineering is about designing things and building them.* I used “Speculative Engineering” as the title for the preface to my book on music (Beethoven’s Anvil) because I wanted to emphasize the constructive nature of my enterprise. I talked about the building blocks I played with as a child and posed the question: “How does the nervous system design and construct music?” (xiii). I think about literary texts and systems of texts in the same way: How are they built?

Returning to Liu, he has quite a bit to say about critique and compositionism. Note his use of engineering language in the following passage:
Critique and compositionism are best understood as arcs in a common cycle of thought, whether at the level of individual projects or of longer generational agendas. Think of it this way: in any project there are tactically important moments when critique is constructive, e.g., at the beginning when assessing what is wrong with precedents or in the middle after the first prototype. Equally, there are tactically shrewd moments when composited methods and viewpoints are constructive, e.g., when the architect pitches a project to a client and has to incorporate the client’s views, when the architect then has to adjust plans in response to the structural engineer, and when the engineer subsequently has to adjust plans in response to the contractors, not to mention the tactically decisive construction workers who actually wield the hammers). It’s just that neither critique nor compositionism has a right to rule as the “last word” in the process–the terminal stage, the end result, the payoff, the final record. In the humanities, I feel, we have fallen into the rut of thinking that interpretive discourse (e.g., a critical essay) should be the final statement of a project, and, further, that critique should be the final payoff of interpretation. [Emphasis mine, WLB] But what if we were to position interpretive discourse and critique elsewhere in the cycle of thought that goes into a project? Compositionism would then not be antithetical to critique; it would include the arc of critique, and vice versa, as part of the rolling launch of thought.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves that the primacy of interpretation is a relatively recent development in our disciplinary history, mostly post World War II, and that literary culture managed to function for centuries without a guild of professional interpreters.

Liu is quite clear that reengaging the humanities is a long-term effort that involves far more than refitting old defenses of the humanities:
Engaging, or reengaging, the public to make a persuasive case for the value of the humanities will need to be a long campaign over many generations – a far longer time horizon than the longest typical time line for activism in the contemporary humanities (going back to May 1968).

Second, I say “reengaging” in the sentence above because the issue of how the humanities should present themselves to society is part of a broader theme today: the great change in how institutional expertise of many kinds (e.g., in higher education, cultural or heritage institutions, journalism, government) engage with the new public networked knowledge (exemplified by Wikipedia or the blogosphere). There is no longer a one way flow in which experts send their knowledge to the public (mediated by journalism and other agencies) while the public sends back only mute feedback in the form of tax dollars, tuition, subscriptions, membership fees, and so on. The flow is increasingly bidirectional or multidirectional. Presenting the humanities afresh to the public today will mean helping to create the new institutional structures, practices, incentives, discourses, and technologies needed for reinventing the role of expertise in the world.
That is to say, we need to rethink our institutions and, in particular, we need to invite the public in. I note that fan culture is all over the place on the Internet, from such general sites as the Wikipedia and TV Tropes to sites devoted to specific titles and in sites for fan fiction. These are obvious points of entry and application for literary scholars.

(See my various posts on citizen science, my post, Ethical Criticism and Descriptive Criticism Online, and my very brief remarks, Crowd-Sourcing Descriptive Work, in Some examples of description.)

Concerning graduate training, Liu remarks:
I know so many humanities graduate students who are not only passionate about public issues but build that passion into their research topics. After all, that is where much of cultural criticism; race, ethnic, and gender studies; postcolonial studies; and now anti-neoliberalist studies, as well as other vibrant movements, come from, not to mention all our “theoretical” allegories (e.g., “rhizomatics”) mirroring our drive (at least as expressed in its modern Western form, with allowance for alternative understandings of the pursuit of happiness elsewhere) for human emancipation and equality. The self-interest of the humanities, I thought, would be served by creating a training path – not just courses or informal colloquia, but perhaps also extramural internship and other opportunities – for our best, brightest, and most passionate students to act on their activism in a way that blends formal education and public engagement.
I don’t know quite what Liu has in mind here – and perhaps he doesn’t either – but I’ve blogged a number of posts under the rubric “JC Rising” (where “JC” stands for Jersey City) suggesting local points of application around gardening and public murals. There’s a lot of very interesting grass roots activity in Jersey City that, I suspect, would play well with the kind of training that Liu is suggesting. In particular, I note that Jersey City is minority white and culturally diverse, with a relatively large Spanish-speaking population and many immigrants from East Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.

Finally, Liu has some interesting remarks on what he calls “network archaeology.” Here I’m a bit puzzled, in part because I’m quite familiar with certain kinds of network structures – conceptual networks, neural networks – and I’ve got intuitions from that work that do not quite know how engage with Liu’s formulations. Let me offer one statement by Liu and a few comments:
First, treat individual works of media as proto- or micro-networks. This means that we shouldn’t treat documents (or, for that matter, people) as en bloc entities engaging each other in networks but should instead adopt a radically networked worldview in which it’s networks all the way down. En bloc entities – individual documents or people constituted internally as relationships of parts, levels, and stages linking and unlinking in time – are themselves network structures.
Networks everywhere. Sure. But I worry about reification. One can draw network diagrams and use those diagrams to represent lots of different kinds of things. But there may be other ways of representing those things as well. Don’t confuse the (descriptive) notation with the thing itself.

Finally, to ride another intellectual hobbyhorse, I suspect that a lot of what Liu is talking about under the rubric of networks could be conceptualized as evolutionary and population processes, but in the cultural domain rather than the biological. Still, think of the biological domain as a source of concepts for thinking about worlds within worlds where you have a large number of entities interacting in many and diverse ways over a wide variety of scales in time and space.

Liu begins his final paragraph by noting “I don’t think there can be a place for the humanities in a networked world without any sense of history; and the world would be the worse for it.” Yes. And, biology is a deeply historical discipline, being very much about how the living world not only changes in time but whose very being is deeply entwined with and constituted through time.

* Addendum: On engineering

I've written some posts about engineering as a mindset:

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