Thursday, June 24, 2021

Permanent crisis among the humanities @ 3 Quarks Daily [Afterthoughts on an essay-review]

I’ve got a new piece up at 3 Quarks Daily:

A perverse sense of intellectual honor is driving humanities scholars to disciplinary seppuku: Some personal reflections on the book, Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age,

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There is the standard book review, which is generally a relatively short piece, less than, say, 2000 words, but often less than 1000, in which the reviewer concentrates entirely on the book they’re reviewing. Then there is the essay-review, which is generally longer, even much longer. The form allows the reviewer to offer their own thoughts about the subject in the book. In some cases the writer will spend the first half or even two-thirds of the piece giving their own ideas and then tack the review on at the end, almost as an afterthought.

My piece is long enough to be an essay-review, almost 5500 words, but at least I do the authors, Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, the courtesy of discussing their book before I offer up my 2000¢ worth of ideas. However, I definitely failed them in one respect, especially so as this is a prepublication review. I failed to provide a single compact statement of praise that could be used in publicity.

A blurb

So here it is:

In Permanent Crisis, Reitter and Wellmon have provided a timely account of the nineteenth century debates that shaped the structural armature of the modern research university. In demonstrating that discord and discontent are inherent in the institutional culture of the humanities, so that humanists are exquisitely tuned to see attacks coming at them on all fronts, they have provided essential reading for anyone charged with guiding their institution through the turmoil currently engulfing higher education in America.

I know, there’s more to the humanities than literary studies

The review has five parts, with the last being a relatively short conclusion. The last half of the first, most of the second, and the entirety of third and fourth sections are devoted to my elaborations on the argument Reitter and Wellmon have given. In offering those elaborations I concentrated on literary studies, which is hardly the entirely of the humanities, though literary scholars often forget that in the context of discussions such as this one. I failed to state that explicitly in the review. I should have done that. I here apologize for that failing. I concentrated on literary studies for an obvious reason: that’s what I know best.

And with that, let’s get on with it.

The overall rhetorical structure of the piece

Though I didn’t have this consciously in mind when writing the review, it’s clear that my general strategy was to validate their argument by pointing some of the contemporary consequences of the discordant humanities institutional culture.

Thus, once I’ve given a highly compressed and abstracted version of their argument at the beginning of the first section (Beyond divinity), I follow it with remarks from literary agent John Brockman, who argues that scientists are coming to displace humanists in the public sphere by offering synthesizing overviews of and reflecting on the general implications of their work. In doing so they are stepping outside the role assigned to them within the institutional structure of the modern research university. They are operating beyond the boundaries of the social contract Reitter and Wellmon are investigating.

This public-facing work does not count when evaluating their work for promotion within the university. These scholars usually write these books after they have gotten tenure. Of course, just between you and me, if this work does become widely known, as in the case of, say, Steven Pinker (who also keeps up a program of specialized research), of course they get rewarded for it in some fashion. Universities appreciate good publicity. And why not?

I open the next section (The same old story, love and glory, as time goes by) with a long quote in which Reitter and Wellmon state their general argument. I follow that with several relatively recent statements in which the late J. Hillis Miller, a distinguished literary scholar (I took courses with him when I was at Johns Hopkins) talks about the discipline of English literature and the current state of the humanities. The fourth and last of those passages opens with Miller mentioning how the New York State University at Albany had recently been forced to shutter four humanities programs. My remarks were confined to the recommendations he made – regroup around media studies – but I said nothing about the fact that here was a threat that had become real.

Could it be that the humanities are in fact under threat? Well, yes, at times and places they are, and increasingly so in recent years. You mean humanists aren’t paranoid? That’s not at all what I mean. Paranoia makes it difficult or impossible to distinguish between real and imagined threats. And it cripples humanists in dealing with the real ones.

So in the third section (Take to the internet) I mention several obvious things literature departments could do that would make them more appealing to students and increase their engagement with the public. They could have taken these steps over a decade ago, but, so far as I know, did not. Why? Because they involve the Internet. Many humanists responded to the Internet with variations on how it is rotting the minds of our students and will rot our minds too if we’re not careful.

That response comes straight out of the nineteenth century playbook in which technology is regarded as somewhere between suspect and evil. Institutional culture blinded humanists to an opportunity that new technology made available. That’s why that culture is so dangerous.

The fourth section (On the personal value of two ancient texts) is tricky. I seem to step entirely outside the argument I have been developing by discussing the value that two venerable texts, Plato’s The Crito and Goethe’s Faust, have had in my life. That is, I am discussing texts, not humanities, though I did in fact encounter both of these texts in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins.

The Crito is a classic text in the literature of civil disobedience. I was put it to use in that capacity when, faced with the certain prospect of being drafted into the military (thus was 1969, during the Vietnam War), I declared myself a Conscientious Objector to war. I go on to discuss how I used The Crito as a way of, at first, remaining loyal to the academy after I’d been denied tenure and found myself unable to secure another academic post. I am quite certain that that failure was at least partially related to the fact that I violated the anti-technology clause of the traditional humanist social contract. My degree was in English literature, but I had gone deeply into cognitive science and computational linguistics. In so doing I had, in effect, taken myself out of the humanities. Later on, when it had become clear that I would never have a university post, I dropped any sense of loyalty to the academy and shifted it to a diverse international community of thinkers.

That is, I used The Crito as a way to lever my way outside the institution in which I had gotten my education and done my initial research. I had used the humanities against the humanities, something any deconstructive post-modern humanist would understand. But, and this is crucial, that demodern humanist would expect praise from their colleagues for pointing out that the humanities can be used against the humanities while one is still gainfully employed as a card-carrying humanist.

Then, after I’d told the story of how I had ceased to be a humanist, then and only then I talked about Goethe’s Faust. What did I say about Faust? That he’d started his adult life searching for the secrets of the universe and ended up in real estate development (reclaiming land from the sea). Faust may be a classic text studied by humanists, but Faust himself, to be sure, an imaginary man, was no humanist. But then neither was Goethe. His career began and ended before humanist institutional culture had been forged. He was a man of letters, a man of science, and a man of practical affairs.

Take THAT as a commentary on institutional humanities culture.

In the fifth and final section (What about the future of the humanities?) I prove unable to produce a favorable prognosis for the contemporary humanities. And I point out that much of most interesting current work is being done in the so-called “digital humanities” and that, of course is being given short shrift by traditional humanists, not for any of its short comings, but on general principle. It involves technology and therefore is evil.

The problem of intellectual unity

The need for intellectual unity is one of the themes that keeps recurring throughout the book. I would like to have said more about it, as it interests me a great deal. Here’s the problem: Just what IS intellectual unity, not as an abstract ideal, but as something you can find in the library, construct in prose, or construct through laboratory experimentation? I think it’s mostly a chimera, an attractive chimera, but a chimera nonetheless.

Here’s a passage from the first chapter: The Modern University and the Dream of Intellectual Unity (p. 45):

At the same time, Schleiermacher consistently invoked the unity-of-knowledge ideal but in a different and more nuanced manner than Schiller, Fichte, and Schelling. “In the area of knowledge,” he writes, “everything is so interdependent and so interconnected that we might as well say: the more something is presented in isolation, the more incomprehensible and confused it will seem.”

That makes some kind of sense, for it suggests and idea that E.O. Wilson, the evolutionary biologist, has been pedaling under the rubric of consilience (I can do without the word, however).

Investigations in various disciplines should be mutually coherent along the edges (whatever that means). I believe that and work toward it in my own work. I also doubt that it can be achieved across the whole range of human knowledge, which is fine. But as an idea it’s more coherent than some idea of an single discourse that both covers everything and is intelligible in full by real individual human beings. That’s bonkers. I’m not sure anyone actually meant something like that. But, if not that, then just what did they have in mind? Anything? 

Yes, I can understand how, having read Goethe’s Faust, you might aspire to something called intellectual unity. The range of that text is vast, and it implies everything else. But Faust is fiction and poetry, great poetry. It’s not an intellectual program or a curriculum. Beware of pursuing unicorns in the real world.

I’ll leave you with a few more passages on unity, all from the first third of the book. Make of them what you will:

p. 24:

To be sure, the dream of the unity of knowledge isn’t an exclusively German phenomenon. It stretches back at least as far as the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus and the emergence of the first monotheistic religions.

p. 29:

The unity-of-knowledge ideal elevated the pedant to a priest and the student to a scholar by endowing learning with a systematic, almost holy end: the promise of coherence and a higher calling.

p. 52:

As we trace the emergence of the modern humanities throughout the chapters that follow, the relationship between unity and specialization is a crucial point, one often lost, both in nineteenth-century Germany and today, amid apologies for the humanities based on the assumption that specialization undid some presupposed prior unity and value of the humanities. It is a refrain that courses through the laments of the melancholy mandarins from 1830s German intellectuals to twenty-first-century American English professors. But the modern humanities were not a casualty of the modern university and specialization—they were a product of them. The humanities never recovered, reconciled, or reconstituted some unity of knowledge undone by specialization. As a moral and rhetorical project, however, the humanities succeeded in obscuring the distinctions and divisions the modern university did introduce and thus succeeded in generating the false hope of a unified knowledge.

p. 79:

More specifically, despite all the persistent features of the melancholy mandarins’ lament and the historical insight they can provide, one important point has largely been lost—an awareness of the limits of universities.

Yes. Amen to that.

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By all means, read the review. Beyond that, read the book. It will be released in August.

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