Monday, July 7, 2014

The Real Crisis in the Humanities, or at any Rate, Literary Criticism [2493]

Yes, there’s been talk of diminished enrollments, loss of funding, and respect lost, all of which are real in some measure. But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I have in mind is the crisis that Ian Bogost identified in a little jeremiad, The Turtlenecked Hairshirt, which started out on his blog and ended up in Debates in the Digital Humanities (2012 print, 2013 open-access):
The problem is not the humanities as a discipline. (Who can blame a discipline?) The problem is its members. We are insufferable. We do not want change. We do not want centrality. We do not want to speak to nor interact with the world. We mistake the tiny pastures of private ideals with the megalopolis of real lives. We spin from our mouths retrograde dreams of the second coming of the nineteenth century while simultaneously dismissing out of our sphincters the far more earnest ambitions of the public at large—religion, economy, family, craft, science.
Yes, more or less. I think. A bit later:
If there is one reason things “digital” might release humanism from its turtlenecked hairshirt it is precisely because computing has revealed a world full of things: hairdressers, recipes, pornographers, typefaces, Bible studies, scandals, magnetic disks, rugby players, dereferenced pointers, cardboard void fill, pro-lifers, snowstorms. The digital world is replete. It resists any efforts to be colonized by the postcolonialists. We cannot escape it by holing up in Berkeley waiting for the taurus of time to roll around to 1968. It will find us and it will videotape our kittens.
I was there, not in Paris in 1968, but I heard about the strikes and the protests. My mind gravitates to 1969, the year I graduated from Johns Hopkins. But also the year of Woodstock. I wasn’t there either, but I heard about it. And I was at Hopkins in 1966 when the French landed at the structuralism conference.

I saw it happen, the inversion Bogost is talking about. It happened gradually, as these things do. You know, the old story about a frog in a pot of water: The water heats up gradually, but by the time things get dangerous enough for the frog to be wary, the frog’s already dead.

You can feel the heat beginning to come up in this passage from Hartman’s opening essay, “The Interpreter: A Self-Analysis”, in The Fate of Reading and Other Essays:
Confession. I have a superiority complex vis-à-vis other critics, and an inferiority complex vis-à-vis art. The interpreter, molded on me, is an overgoer with pen-envy strong enough to compel him into the foolishness of print. His self-disgust is merely that of the artist, intensified. "Joe, throw my book away." Sometimes his discontent with the "secondary" act of writing—with living in the reflective or imitative sphere—makes him privilege some primary act at the expense of art or commentary on art. He turns into Mystic or Vitalist. But, more often, he compromises by establishing a special relationship to what transcends him. Having discounted other critics, and reduced art to its greatest exemplars, he feels naked enough to say: "Myself and Art." Like Emerson, who said that ultimately there was "I and the Abyss." (p. 3)
What WAS he thinking? How ever did that paragraph see its way into print? And from a senior scholar – but then, it wouldn’t have been published if a junior scholar had written it.

From a senior scholar it becomes a statement of professional identity, despite the personal terms Hartman used. No doubt it expresses a truth about Hartman the private individual, but he’s publishing it as Hartman the professional literary critic. Other critics read it as a truth about their profession. And then the personal became political and literary criticism took on the person of those many heroes – Horatius at the bridge, Frodo Baggins, the Dutch boy at the dike – saving the world against relentless evil.

Some things DID change. The canon, as it had come to be called, opened up. Other texts are read, other voices are heard. The discipline won’t return to the good old days.

But global capitalism still reigns and now the computer! The horror! the horror!

For it is the computer that’s now knocking at the door. Friend or foe?

Elsewhere in that same Debates volume Gary Hall has a piece, There Are No Digital Humanities. What’s his voice in the following passage?
While ideas of this kind are perhaps a little bit too neat and symmetrical to be entirely convincing, this “scientific turn” in the humanities has been attributed by some to a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis brought about, if not by the lack of credibility of the humanities’ metanarratives of legitimation exactly then at least in part by the “imperious attitude” of the sciences. This attitude has led the latter to colonize the humanists’ space in the form of biomedicine, neuroscience, theories of cognition, and so on (Kagan, 227). Is the turn toward computing just the latest manifestation of and response to this crisis of confidence in the humanities?
Just what is this “humanists’ space” that “biomedicine, neuroscience, theories of cognition, and so on” are colonizing? How did humanists come into possession of that space? Who or what gave us the deed?

Humanities computing, of course, is not new. Its roots go back to the 1950s. Why not assume that its current florescence is simply a coming of age brought about by a combination of the ready availability of powerful computers coupled with genuine interest in what humanists can do with those computers?

What IS the case is that, for a quarter century or more, scientists have been engaging in public discourse about human nature and society of a sort that used to be the province of humanists, or so it seems. This development is most brashly trumpeted by John Brockman who, as a literary agent to a number of scientific thinkers and journalists, has also helped foster it. He talks of an emerging “third culture ... of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.” The numerical reference, of course, is to C. P, Snow’s The Two Cultures, of literary intellectuals on the one hand, and scientists on the other.

Why should we not applaud this development? Isn’t it a good thing that there is a substantial general audience interested in science and what scientists have to say on general issues? Why don’t we see these writers and thinkers as offering us help, rather than as competition?

To be sure, Brockman’s rhetoric is too self-satisfied and triumphalist, and he’s not alone in that. A generous reader would be inclined to look beyond that rhetoric, perhaps even to take it as in part a response to anti-science and luddite rhetoric from humanists (the ones with their earnest fingers in the dike). We need to acknowledge that the diverse forms of knowledge simply cannot be summed up as science on the one hand and humanities on the other. As Bruno Latour has been arguing, Being takes many forms and so must our knowledge of it.

Perhaps it's time we humanists take our revised conceptions of the human subject seriously and make correlative changes in how we conduct our investigations. Accept the newer psychologies – cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, neuropsychology; welcome them to the quest. Embrace computing, and not simply as a tool for backroom grunt work. We need to become comfortable with it as both a metaphor and a model for the mind. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll come up with new conceptions of deep and general use to practitioners of other disciplines.

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I'm counting down to my 2500th post, hence the number after the title of this post.

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