The humanities in question.
To pose once again a question--any question--about the future of the humanities is to risk receiving a diagnosis that comes so naturally that it almost seems automatic. "The humanities are--now as never before--in crisis" (1) The reasons for this diagnosis hardly need enumerating: today more than ever, social, economic, and technological forces, whether exploited by unthinking administrators and legislators or simply running to their own logical conclusion, seem to diminish or even to render superfluous humanistic modes of inquiry (AAAS 2013). For some self-identified humanists, there is an obvious response to this diagnosis: today more than ever, these scholars conclude, the humanities need to defend themselves and their fields, responding to the crisis of the humanities by attending more energetically to the work of justifying the humanities to nonhumanists (whether legislators, university administrators, nonacademic audiences, and/or the taxpaying public; AAAS 2013, 12, 32; Spellmeyer 2003, 3-25; Mincks 2012). For us, by contrast, it is not at all self-evident that the discourses of crisis and defense provide humanists with the only form, let alone the most desirable or effective one, for responding to this state of affairs. To the contrary: we sense something internal to this couplet, and above all internal to the strangely "automated" way in which it comes to govern conversations about the humanities today, that risks endangering the very thing it proposes to protect.
Look again at the logic that joins crisis to defense. Few self-identified humanists would disagree with the premise that "the humanities" serves as a name for a set of inquiries characterized by their commitment to self-questioning and self-critique. According to this understanding, which claims to find its roots in the Socratic maxim that "the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being" (Plato 1953, 38a), the humanities allow self-examination to give life lasting shape and structure, to give meaning and value to the life of the free citizen, and as such to humanize life itself (COGEFS 1955,53; Nussbaum 1997,30-31; 2010,47-51; Franke 2009,14,21; Harpham 2005,31; Wolin 2011,18-19). Yet even though this understanding seems to be widely held among humanists, remarkably few of them seem to translate it into their commentaries on "the crisis of the humanities." To the contrary, humanists' discourse on the "crisis of the humanities" sometimes takes place in manifestly unexamined terms. These are terms of self-defense and self-protection: their necessity is assumed, their relation to crisis seems obvious, their validity appears incontestable. And so they remain altogether unquestioned by humanists whose central desire seems to be the preservation of the examined life.
To us this seems an untenable position. To the extent that humanists' efforts to defend the humanities depend on the repetition of unquestioned rhetorical forms--especially those of defense, protection, justification, and apologia--our very formulation of the question of the future of the humanities will already have begun to answer itself, implicitly, in the negative. In this case, our efforts to revive the humanities will have confirmed its exhaustion; our defense of the humanities will have foreshortened the very future it seeks to prolong. We will have performed the crisis of the humanities in and through our very response to the "crisis of the humanities." To defend the practices of self-critique and self-questioning without also practicing either self-critique or self-questioning in one's defense--this strategy of protecting the humanities seems to us to pose an "internal" threat that is just as serious as any of the very real "external" dangers that today conspire against the idea of a future for the humanities.
The purpose of this special issue on "The Humanities: Crisis, Defense, and Beyond" is to experiment with ways of thinking through this deadlock, this stalled dialectic according to which the humanities risks defending its perceived substance in a manner that simultaneously abandons its form. Our desire is to offer responses to the predicament of the contemporary humanities that are consistent with the self-critique and self-examination that confer upon the humanities its innermost force and hallmark form. We seek to provide a series of responses to the question of the future of the humanities that amount to more than just simple repetitions or extensions into the future of the humanities as they now seem to exist. We propose to find the future of the humanities instead in the attributes that, to some observers, seem to be the very sources of its weakness: its radical incompletion, its inherent disputability, its constitutive openness to auto-critical revision and rethinking--the sense in which, in short, the humanities lives by placing itself in question (Said 2004, 12, 32). We are therefore inclined to treat the humanities not as a given but as at stake in a dialogue and even a quarrel, as an inescapably political agon between competing visions of the future. Our wager is that the best "defense" in this moment of crisis is no defense at all, but instead a fearless extension to the very problem of "the crisis of the humanities" of the sort of questioning that distinguishes what is best in the humanities--questioning that challenges common sense, that upsets received opinions, and that is not afraid to introduce paradoxes, impasses, and aporias into otherwise placid and predictable public discussions.
Some readers, to be sure, may be inclined to doubt the wisdom of this approach. Is a moment of crisis really the right time for humanists to intensify their insistence upon the need for humanistic questioning? Isn't this instead a time for humanists to drop all such "pieties" and "specialized jargon," to speak without irony and indirection, to say what they mean and mean what they say, and to explain their work to the public with unprecedented vigor and clarity (Fish 2010a; Franke 2009, 18, 22-23; Harpham 2005, 35-36; New York Times 2013)? There is certainly something reassuring about this response; it's hard not to be attracted by the notion that the salvation of the humanities could be found in something so simple as tight prose. But as with most declarations of states of emergency, recent demands for "accessibility" end up depoliticizing the very field they claim to save. They demand unconditional accessibility as a condition for the future of the humanities, yet remain silent on the question of who gets to decide what counts as "accessibility" and "the future" (not to mention what those decisions might mean for the future of the work of interpretation-the work of rendering the inaccessible accessible). Solutions like these arguably only function to aestheticize a set of problems the roots of which run much deeper, and which, in our view, are worthy of the best of humanistic scholarship.
These problems come into sharper focus once we begin to examine the concept of "crisis" itself. This ambiguous term emerged from contested and vague origins in ancient law (where it signified a judgment of guilt or innocence), medicine (where it signified a life-or-death moment, a turning-point in a treatment), and theology (where it signified the difference between salvation or damnation), whereupon it migrated to the philosophy of history (where it came to signify the experience of an end of an epoch; Koselleck 2006). In the contemporary world, the term has been overused almost to the point of meaninglessness (Steiner 2012, 25; Roitman 2014, 3-5). The humanities is not, after all, the only field whose discourse is today dominated by "crisis." Much the same holds true in politics (where emergency governance increasingly has become the norm), nature (where only the most ignorant deny the increasingly obvious fact of ecological and environmental crisis), and economics (whether in the form of "disaster capitalism," where neoliberal reforms are imposed following often-fabricated crises; the constant crisis of capitalism's contradictions, as theorized by Marx; or, most recently, the global crisis in financial markets and sovereign debt). Under these conditions, it takes little imagination to declare a crisis in this or that field; the difficult thing is to imagine a dimension of contemporary experience--and, above all, a relation between thought and event--that does not orient itself with reference to crisis (Roitman 2014, 92).
Faced with such a situation--with, as it were, a crisis of "crisis," with the routinization and exhaustion of the very discourse of crisis--it's instructive to recall Hannah Arendt's essay "The Crisis in Education" (1961). A "crisis," Arendt says, is something like a secularized iteration of what the early modern thinker Nicolas Malebranche would call an occasio: it is an event whose irruption into, and effects upon, everyday life cannot be explained by human reason. In contrast to Malebranche, who treats the experience of the occasio as evidence of divine will, Arendt thinks this experience in secular and negative terms, suggesting that any crisis worthy of the name intervenes in the world in an irredeemably destructive manner. For Arendt, crises ruin the common sense that otherwise allows for a coherent experience of the world. They destroy the "facades" and "prejudices," the errors and half-truths, the pre-critical notions that--however unthinkingly, for better or worse--together enable various communities to experience the world as a "given." In Arendt's view, crises are therefore moments of great political danger, since the loss of a common world also creates the conditions for the depoliticization of that world, and so marks a potential turning-point, a confusing juncture at which populations of isolated individuals are especially vulnerable to authoritarian rule (or worse).
For Arendt, however, this same destruction, this same dissolution of common sense, creates a chance--even an opportunity. A crisis, Arendt notes, is an occasion "to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter." As she points out, "the disappearance of prejudices simply means that we have lost the answers on which we ordinarily rely without even realizing that they were originally answers to questions. A crisis forces us back to the questions themselves and requires from us either new or old answers, but in any case direct judgments" (1961, 174; cf. 8-9). For Arendt, in other words, a crisis entails loss, but this loss is not nothing: it is neither a simple absence, nor a reason for nostalgia, nor even a site for redemption. On Arendt's account, to truly experience a crisis--or, more to the point, to experience a crisis truly, to experience the truth in a crisis and of a crisis--is to be brought face-to-face with the fundamental questions for which one's lost common sense was only ever a partial response in the first place. Crises, on this understanding, are more than just emergencies that call for defense and protection. They are occasions for thought: in a crisis, as Jakob Norberg has put it in his insightful commentary on Arendt, "a question finally appears as a question" (Norberg 2011,134).
From Arendt, then, we receive an approach to "crisis" that allows us to think the "crisis of the humanities" in a counterintuitive manner. From an Arendtian perspective, there is a political dimension to any declaration of crisis: we would want to know precisely what common world it is whose destruction we are lamenting when we declare the humanities to be in crisis, and we would want to know who presumes to have the right or authority to issue such declarations. (2) To keep one's head in a crisis is to recognize that the critical question is not at all how to "defend" the humanities from the danger of this or that loss. It's to give voice to the questions that were only ever incompletely answered by common sense to begin with, and that now--under conditions of crisis--we are once again forced to answer.
In the case of the crisis of the humanities, this has at least one very clear implication. If a crisis is what happens when (to paraphrase Arendt) reality itself assumes the form of a question, then questioning is not at all a "luxury" that humanities scholars should renounce in favor of a renewed commitment to commonsensical writing. To the contrary, the question--up to and including the practice of aporetic questioning at which Arendt herself was so adept--is arguably the form that is most fitting of all for a time of crisis. It may well be, in fact, that the practice of the humanities and the crisis of the humanities are one and the same thing: that the humanities comprise those forms of knowledge that thrive not despite but because they place themselves in question, not despite but because they are acutely aware of the possibility of their own impossibility, not despite but because they can foresee their own finitude and futurelessness. The crisis of the humanities, the movement by which it questions its very possibility, would not then be antithetical to its survival; it would be the very heartbeat of the humanities, the mode in which it survives, to the extent that it survives at all.
On this read, to problematize the humanities at a moment when it is undergoing crisis would not then be an act of irresponsibility or betrayal. Quite the opposite: it would be an expression of fidelity, an attempt to translate humanistic practice into a living present where existing traditions of "common sense" in the humanities may no longer have much, if anything, in common with contemporary humanity itself. It was a crisis in the humanities that gave birth to cultural studies in the 1970s, (3) and it is arguably a new and different crisis in the humanities that is giving birth to the "post-humanities" today (Wolfe 2010, 100-101). On these terms, the most forceful response to the "crisis of the humanities" would involve neither a straightforward defense nor even, strange though it may sound, the formation of a single program for the future for the humanities. It would be--much more modestly, but also much more critically--to treat the crisis of the humanities as an occasion to inquire into the sense in which the "humanities" is itself a necessarily incomplete and unstable response to a series of questions that are now exposed, vulnerable, and available to thought. (4)
What questions are those? Among the most vexed, and at stake in many of the essays collected here, is the relations of the humanities to advances in the various fields that together comprise contemporary technoscience (Weber 2000, para. 1-4). From artificial intelligence and "Big Data" to the mapping of the human genome and human cloning, recent research in computer science and the life sciences has posed profound questions about the meaning, limits, and essence of the human. The "common sense" that governs many recent discussions about the crisis of the humanities is that there is something specific, and something endangered, about practicing the humanities in contrast with the 'exact' sciences (a term that can envelope both the natural and some of the social sciences) and the novel techniques and technologies those sciences enable. In relation to these sciences and the cybernetic systems they set into motion, the humanities seems inclined to define its future in an elegiac tone--to worry about the threat from technoscience, while also mourning the loss of a golden age. (5)
This "common sense" incompletely responds to the sense in which the humanities comes into question in its relation to technoscience. Not only does it leave in silence the techne internal to the humanities; it also underestimates the way that techne itself--understood as the essence of the very sort of "vocational-technical" or "merely professional" education to which the humanities traditionally has opposed itself, and as the force that more than anything else seems to demonstrate its "uselessness"--can also serve as an occasion for the renewal of the humanities.
On the one hand, the traditional humanities are no stranger to technology. Bernard Stiegler, for example, has shown that, far from being alien to the human, techne is the prior condition for the very emergence of the human in the first place (Stiegler 2009). From a very different perspective, meanwhile, the humanistic disciplines themselves amount to a social technology (what Michel Foucault would call a dispositif) that operates, among other things, as a "time machine." The hermeneutic encounters that the humanities enables with minds past and present depend on the prior operation of apparatuses of archivization and memory--mainly the enduring exoskeleton of libraries and books, though increasingly today the unstable electric jelly of the Internet as well (Lambert 2001, 72-74; Stiegler 2010, 66-67). It's these apparatuses that allow young students to enter into the trans-generational epistolary exchanges that, as Peter Sloterdijk (2009) has argued, operate as the central device through which the humanities convert life into human life. Even when humanists have not adopted a symptomatically scientistic vocabulary to describe their work (as was the case, in the 1980s, with certain traditions of structuralism, and as remains the case with many traditions of analytic philosophy today; Lambert 2001, 28-29; Spellmeyer 2003, 21-22; Spivak 2003,101), or turned directly to teletechnical instruments (as with the digital humanities), humanistic inquiry has traditionally relied upon a certain set of technical devices and scientific skills--the library, the book, the archivist, library science, etc.--as the "off-stage" condition for its work.
This, in fact, is what makes specific humanities programs so vulnerable to revolutions in teletechnics: even as they define themselves in opposition to "merely technical" training, they have not fully thought through the extent to which they rely upon a branch of technics, information storage and retrieval, that today is undergoing rapid transformation and that has the very definite potential to render the brick-and-mortar campus superfluous.
And yet, on the other hand, when new teletechnical apparatuses call the humanities into question from within, the logics of scientific discovery and teletechical innovation make humanistic inquiry more important than ever. Even as science has become the highest and most unquestionable authority on the nature of reality, its own internal logic, energy, and momentum--its skepticism and doubt, its many spurs toward innovation and experimentation, its ambition to predict and master not only nature, but also the new problems it has created--guarantee that none of its answers will remain authoritative and unquestioned for long (Lyotard 1984, 39). Considered in the abstract, the results of scientific research may seem more concrete and tangible, more measurable and exact, than the results of humanistic research. But science is no less open-ended than the humanities: in order for science to remain scientific, it must dwell in the element of skepticism, remaining open to revision, refinement, and even revolution--or what Thomas Kuhn called "paradigm shifts." Indeed, the fact that science's open-ended questions take an especially or unusually concrete or tangible form makes the need for renewed humanistic questioning all the more profound. Science's legitimacy derives from forms of "narrative" knowledge that are not themselves scientific, and that science's very drive for legitimation necessarily undercuts (Lyotard 1984, 29, 39). If education is the work of preparing younger generations to take responsibility for setting-aright a world that is "out-of-joint" (Arendt 1961, 192-93), then it is the predictably unpredictable form of scientific and technical innovation that requires humanistic education--with its ostensibly "useless" open-ended questions. Techne is not simply a threat to the traditional humanities; it is also, if not primarily, the occasio that most forcefully demands a rethinking of the relation of the humanities to the sciences.
To dialecticize the relation of the sciences and the humanities is not, of course, the same as worrying about how to heal the split between the "two cultures" of knowledge production within higher education--or, as Immanuel Wallerstein has put it, the "separation of the quest for the true and the quest for the good and the beautiful." Although this separation is today, according to Wallerstein, "fundamental to the geoculture, and forms the basis of our university systems" (1999, 183), it is worth recalling the sense in which this separation does not originate within the university itself. It is often forgotten that, for C. P. Snow, who coined the term "two cultures" at Oxford in 1959, the epistemological need to reunify the sciences and the humanities was premised on a prior, strategic need: the geopolitical necessity for the Anglophone capitalist West, rather than the Soviet Union, to lead a new wave of scientific and industrial revolutions in Asia and Africa. (6) Snow's worry wasn't only, or even primarily, that the true would become divorced from the good and the beautiful; it was that the West would fail to reunify itself behind an effort to spread science, technology, and the English language to these newly decolonized countries, and that as such, it would be reduced to nothing more than an "enclave." (7)
Snow's concern over Western decline placed his discourse squarely in the genre of Husserl's 1934-7 "Philosophy and the Crisis of European Man," particularly as interpreted by Derrida (1982). Delivered in the interval between the Bandung Conference and the Belgrade Summit, Husserl's lecture on the need to reconcile the humanities and the sciences was part of an unambiguous call for the university to respond to the crisis of Western geopolitical supremacy. Like the concept of the "three worlds" (Pietsch 1981; Spivak 1999, 3-9), the notion of "two cultures" must be placed in question by explicating the specific political space--the Cold War West--where the question began to matter in the first place.
From this perspective, the impulse to defend the humanities "against" the perceived predations of "technoscience" is not at all the only or most desirable way to think this relation. This defense is, in effect, the defense of an administrative rubric derived from the Cold War university, a "professional umbrella" (Morrison 2005, 715) designed for the purposes of grouping and classifying academic departments and disciplines that emerged as the paradigm of the German research university took hold in the United States (a critique of this function is offered in Ward 1978: 12-15, 43-45). The loss of this institutional regime is certainly destabilizing; but it also enables a new and different way to think about the persistent issue of what sorts of inquiries "belong" within boundaries of "the" humanities (Perloff 2012, 44). Many of the problems that the humanities takes up in its research--above all, the very concept of the human itself--depend upon a prior lexicon that is prepared for the humanities in advance by extra-humanistic disciplines in the natural and social sciences (Esposito 2012, 20-63).
A converse point might be made about the life sciences. Debates over abortion and euthanasia, about the beginning and end of life, not to mention the emergence of techniques of genetic engineering and human cloning, like the development of nuclear weaponry a generation ago, have placed the basic questions of human existence at the very center of the most divisive debates in the US and elsewhere. When colleges and universities have been tempted to abandon the humanities and humanists obsess about the futurelessness of the humanities, those same questions have reappeared in the very world to which colleges and universities wish to remain relevant: spurred by new developments in science and technology, the question of the meaning and limit of the "good life"--or, as Jurgen Habermas (2003) put it, the question of the "future of human nature"--is the core of an all-consuming public debate.
Humanistic questions are not merely "relevant" to these debates; they are the inexhaustible wellspring of the debate itself. Cybernetic technologies (whether through implants into the body, or through prosthetic extensions of the body) certainly do have the potential to alter the nature of the human. But once a cybernetic system has been set into motion, it cannot rewrite its own basic code, making more important than ever the task of understanding the assumptions underlying its initial programming (Lyotard 1984,16, 29). Given these realities, it hardly seems possible, or even desirable, to draw a clear line between a humanist and an "exact" scientist or a social scientist. But if this is the case, then perhaps the renewal of humanistic disciplines such as comparative literature depends not on their ability to oppose themselves to social scientific disciplines such as area studies, but on their ability to rethink the ways these disciplines supplement one another (Spivak 2003, 72; cf. 9, 38X8 One way to engage the question of the humanities is to focus not on disciplines or fields but on the practices of scholarship that define the humanistic approach--the modes of research that a political theorist and an anthropologist might share with, say, a literary scholar. The notion that the teaching of the humanities can and should entail "research" is, as Louis Menand (2010, 69, 75) points out, somewhat of a historical anomaly, emerging as a norm only during the postwar period of 1945-1975 (which is sometimes called the "Golden Age" of higher education in the US). Today's university, needless to say, is a very different animal, marked as it is by many of the same worrisome trends that define neoliberalism more generally: the extension of the logic of the competitive free market to all domains of human experience (Polanyi 1944); the reduction of education to the acquisition of human capital (Foucault 2008, 215-37); the elevation of the entrepreneur as the dominant paradigm of contemporary subjectivity (Foucault 2008, 230); the transformation of indebtedness into a mode of governmentality (Lazzarato 2012); the naturalization of management techniques and jargon derived from for-profit corporations (Readings 1996; Ginsberg 2011); the privatization of public goods, services, and institutions (Newfield 2008); hostility toward workers' rights and the degradation of work into a precarious and contingent experience (Steiner 2009; Harvey 2005, 167-72); and, above all, the instrumentalization of "shock" and "crisis" as opportunities to implement otherwise unpalatable reforms (Klein 2007, Mirowski 2014). Under these conditions, the very idea of "humanistic research" threatens to become a thing of the past, collapsed under the weight of the emergent narrative that humanists should abandon their esoteric, politically-correct research in order to return once again to the healthy, exoteric work of teaching (Williams 2006). As such, it would be a mistake to assume that the corporatization of the university somehow will remain neutral towards the practices of the humanities. Far from it: taken to its logical conclusion, corporatization cannot fail to produce institutional conditions in which the practices of the humanities become ever more residual, marginal, superfluous, ornamental, and archaic (Donoghue 2008).
Faced with this situation, it will be important not only to reclaim the concept of education from the theorists of human capital, but also to recuperate the logical sequence that makes the work of humanistic research into the prior condition for any act of "professing" the humanities. For this, in turn, it will be necessary to develop a lexicon that can clarify the specific temporality of humanistic work--work that is sometimes called "slow learning," but which is difficult to describe because of the paradoxical way that it combines a certain experience of labor (consisting of expenditure and production, energy and intensity, fatigue and exhaustion) with a certain experience of leisure (traditionally figured as schole or otium). If concerns about the future of the humanities are driven by anxieties about the intellectual content of their project, then clearly consideration of the project's apparent decline must proceed from a reexamination of the paradoxical work of humanistic inquiry. Part of this reexamination will be unavoidably taxonomic: what shared principles of inquiry, after all, inform the work of a poetry translator and an art historian? Of what does the work of the humanist consist, and how might that work differ from the work of other academics? Sooner or later, however, any inquiry of this sort will be obliged to confront a series of questions that are less taxonomic than phenomenological: assuming that it is even possible to speak of a "subject of the humanities," who is that subject? What might we learn about the future of the humanities from an inquiry into that subject's genesis, basis, and modalities? Are the humanities defined, specifically and perhaps even uniquely, through their relationship to the past--their shared commitment to the analysis of what has happened, has been recorded, created, and thought through: the "knowledge of what is known" (Harpham 2005, 23)? Or are there other modes of temporality, other relations to time, that can and should define humanistic inquiry?
What would it mean, for example, for a humanist to venture into the natural world, to seek to know what is not yet known, to speculate and predict? Is this the sole provenance of the scientist, whose mastery of nature silently subtends his predictive capacity? Or, beginning at least with Kant, is there not a tradition of "prophetic history" (Kant 1996, 297) internal to Enlightenment thinking that asks specifically about the future of the "human race" (or menschliche Geschlecht, in Kant's phrasing), a mode of thinking that the contemporary human sciences have, in their historicist complacency and capitulation to instrumental reason, abandoned? If so, what shape would the humanities take were it to recuperate or even to complete that old strand of Enlightenment thinking today? In particular, how might we bring it to bear on the proposal, increasingly plausible, that today we live in the epoch of the anthropocene--a phase of geological time defined by the impact of human activity on the earth. The concept of the anthropocene clearly presupposes a concept of the human; it is arguably even that epoch in which it is more decisive than ever to grasp what we mean by "anthropos." It also, however, implies a very specific future, namely, the possibility of humanity's own extinction (Benatar 2006; Brassier 2007; Thacker 2011). Does the humanities (which we take to be a constitutively secular vocation (9) even have the capability to think this future--that, as we know from astrophysics, is the future of all futures? Or does this question mark the constitutive limit of humanistic studies, the unthinkable, intolerable question that no humanist will want to pose; that no legislator, granting agency, or taxpayer will wish to fund; and that no student will desire to learn? Is a fully secular humanities even capable of remaining loyal to the probity, the completely demystified thinking, it claims as one of its highest and most definitive vocations? If not--if, to the contrary, the promise of completely demystified thinking is perhaps the Enlightenment's most calamitous mystification of all (10)--should humanists not pose, as the prior condition for any discussion of the future of the humanities, the question of the future in the humanities? Is there not, prior to any concrete, institutional future enabled for the humanities by administrative means, another future--a vague, unstated, but nonetheless authoritative sense that there ought to be a future of salvation, redemption, or improvement--that is already preprogrammed into the very concept of the humanities itself?
The sobering claims of contemporary science notwithstanding, the humanities may not be able to anticipate the future of humanity without acting "as if' it will not involve humanity's extinction--without, that is to say, recourse to the consolations of the salutary fictions that, taken to their extreme, result in the various forms of "religious enthusiasm" that have no time whatsoever for the humanities (Said 2004, 51). We need to put this incapacity, this unshakeable desire for a salvific future, this "compulsory redemptiveness" at the center of our concerns. The form of this "as if"--independently of and prior to its "content," however emphatically "post-human" that content may seem (Bennett 2010,122)--is perhaps even the most subtle and the most telltale signature of traditional humanistic scholarship. We must recognize that an examination of the future implied by its logic and syntax, not to mention the past encoded in the theology it secularizes, is the prior condition for any rigorous inquiry into the "future of the humanities." (11)
This holds especially when pleas for this future involve claims to address "the public." The concept of "the public" (deployed almost always, symptomatically, with the definite article) figures so centrally and yet so abstractly within humanistic discourse that Bruce Robbins has called it the "professional unconscious" of the humanities scholar (1993, 88-89). In many respects, discourse on the crisis of the humanities today is an indirect way of addressing the related crisis of the public sphere. What really does the concept of the "public" mean, at a moment defined not only by the "structural transformation of the public sphere" (in which the forces of polling, advertising, and public relations have fundamentally altered the meaning of the public in early modern political theory), but also by the emergence of "diasporic public spheres" (in which global cinema, the Internet, and other teletechnical devices allow for a structural noncoincidence between certain public spheres and the territories of the nation-states in which they operate), and the rise of the "society of the spectacle," in which postmodern "images" begin to exercise a new power that resembles nothing so much as the forms of premodern religious belief (Habermas 1991; Appadurai 1996, 21, 36, 101-13; Debord 1995; cf. Agamben 2011, 253-59)?
More often than not, the concept of the "public" as it is deployed within discourses on the "crisis" of the humanities refers neither to these complicated contemporary realities, nor to the intricate reconfigurations of the humanities that are required to understand them (Chow 2005, 47-55). It operates simply as a moralistic metonym for "the republic," or even "the nation," and its silent function is to place the humanities in the services of nationalist discourses designed to bolster the development programs of the postcolonial state (where strong assertions of cultural identity are understood as the necessary condition for any anti-imperial politics: Said 2004, 34-39; Lalu 2012, 3-7; Oloruntimehin 2007) and the national security apparatus of the post-hegemonic United States (where the "Golden Age" of the humanities coincided with Cold War definitions of the West that drew a line "from Plato to NATO," and where today powerful forces are once again seeking to "save" the humanities by bringing them under the sign of "national security"; cf. A A AS 2013, 55-60).
To justify the humanities to the public--does this mean explaining to university administrators and to the taxpaying public what they are receiving in exchange for their continued funding? If so, wouldn't an assumption of this sort impose an intolerable constraint upon a discipline that traditionally has defined itself in opposition to the concept that all true value derives from the production of measurable results? If one purpose of the humanities is for the knower to become revealed to herself in and through the work of knowing, how can this purpose not be fatally devalued by any justification that seeks to defend the humanities to a public whose interest is assumed to be limited to exchange value?
Or perhaps those who speak of the need for the humanities to "justify itself to the public" have something different in mind--explaining the humanities to the greatest number of individuals, in the simplest terms, as quickly as possible? But if this is the case, what sort of pre-existing premises are available to humanists to enable their persuasive speech? The humanities has traditionally presupposed a certain quotient of leisure time as the condition for the forms of self-examination it bequeaths to its students (Wolin 2011, 9). Under technological conditions where the instantaneity of communication is a virtue, is it really possible to convey, in a non-trivial way, the virtues of humanistic study? If not, and if we nevertheless consent to the notion that it must justify itself in this new teletechnical situation, serious constraints will be imposed upon the humanities, and the humanities will have difficulty continuing its struggle against "thoughtlessness" (18).
What is most curious about the call for the humanities to "explain itself" to the public is that the basic questions of humanistic studies have become, even and especially in this highly technical age, more indispensable and central than ever to all sorts of publics. For example, one of the hallmark features of the age of globalization is the heightened importance of the neglected art of translation. Under conditions where teletechnical apparatuses increasingly bring very different languages, informed more often than not by radically different structures of belief and feeling, into contact with one another, translation is quickly becoming more than just the solitary and thankless labor of which Walter Benjamin spoke so beautifully in his 1923 essay "The Task of the Translator." The ability to translate, not only between different languages but also within "single" languages that today are globalized and pluralized, has become one of the essential preconditions for contemporary politics. Far from being "merely academic," the labor of translation is indispensable if the heterogeneity of various global publics is to avoid unraveling into mutually hostile separatisms (Galli 2008, 79).
Translation has not gotten any easier for all this newfound importance: to the contrary, under conditions of globalization, the problem of the "untranslatable" is more pressing than ever (Apter 2013; Cassin 2014). New technologies of information storage and retrieval do not resolve this problem; they exacerbate it. Even as these technologies set limits on the sorts of human languages that can be translated into "machine code," enabling didactic utterances while disabling utterances that question (Lyotard 1984, 4, 50-51), they nevertheless promise that "everything is translatable" (Apter 2006, 226-40). Small wonder, therefore, that translation remains entirely unquestioned in even the most thorough debates over the "digital humanities" (Gold 2012). More worrisome still is the complete absence of the problem of translation from even the very best and most rigorous reflections on the crisis of the humanities, except inasmuch as it poses a problem for "national security" (Levine et al. 1988; Lepage 2006; on "critical foreign languages," AAAS 2013, 58-59). It is as if the preoccupation within the humanities with the need to "translate itself' to the nonacademic public has foreclosed on the possibility of the humanities retranslating itself to itself--rendering its "crisis," for example, as an occasio, an event, and a question--and so too on the possibility that the task of translation, as an emerging problem for academia and the public alike, could itself serve as one of the sites for the renewal of the humanities (as it has in the recent past; cf. Hall 1990,16).
Strange, then, that one particularly strong trend in the humanities--the "post-humanities"--which would seem to be particularly well positioned to address questions raised by translation, in fact forecloses upon them as well, only in a different way. To the extent that the humanities define themselves in a Socratic mode, the self-examination that leads us to critique the very category of the human is a strikingly loyal translation of the most ancient paradigm of humanistic thought. That the traditional humanities claim their origin in a figure, Socrates, who likened his own questioning to the bites of an insect, a gadfly (Plato 1953, 30), means that the animal--the nonhuman, as the post-humanities would have it--was always already internal to the humanities.
This constitutes a dilemma for these "humanist humanists," as Wolfe has classified them (2010, 125): for if the human, Socrates, who today is said to inaugurate the humanities, does so by figuring his thinking as an activity--stinging--that is not itself human, then surely the "humanist humanities" is nonidentical with itself, and has been so from the very beginning. But it also, and perhaps even more seriously, poses a dilemma for the post-humanities, for it implies that the form of self-reflection specific to the so-called "post-humanities"--in which the human poses questions to itself in the mode of, and with reference, to a nonhuman animal (Wolfe 2010, 122)--is also far less novel than this "new" field presumes. The critique of humanism, that is to say, is one of the standard motifs of humanism itself (Derrida 1982, 119-21). If the strangeness of the humanist humanities consists in its dependence upon the figure of insect life as the paradigmatic form for the self-questioning of the humanities, the strangeness of post-humanities consists in its un-stung and un-insectlike assumption that the self-examination of the human was ever really a human practice in the first place. Perhaps the future of the contemporary humanities will arrive not by looking to the exterior of the humanities, but by responding with unprecedented probity and clarity to the archaic, unposed questions internal to the humanities--questions that today humanists are obliged to recall, repeat, rethink, retranslate, and renew.
The essays collected in this special issue seek to perform just this questioning. Instead of responding "automatically" or "naturally" to the question of the future of the humanities, the authors generally suspend the rhetoric of crisis and defense--but not in order to avoid the reality that such rhetoric purports to describe. Just the opposite: we want to examine the grammar that provides this rhetoric with its force and persistence, to study the genealogy of the lexicon it takes for granted, to put a name to its symptomatic silences and enabling omissions, to investigate the discourse of the humanities itself, in order to inquire into its origins and conditions of possibility. In the space opened up by this inquiry, our contributors not only venture a set of experiments with various futures for the humanities; they also seek to reconstruct the various pasts that allow those futures to come into sharper focus. (12) Some of these contributions are openly programmatic: they define ways to think through the crisis of the humanities. Others exemplify new and different futures for the humanities in the problems, modalities, and directions of the research they present. Their differences notwithstanding, our contributors' work unfolds within a common horizon. Each essay in its own way stands back from the automatism that seems to characterize humanists' responses to questions regarding the future of their profession. Each essay attempts to make the future of the humanities a subject of intellectual work--a question worthy of humanistic inquiry itself--and examines concrete problems and issues that mark the conditions of possibility of humanists' pursuits in the twenty-first-century, North American academe. All of the essays that follow consider the future of the humanities in a manner consistent with the most central virtues of the humanities-self-criticism, self-examination, and openness to the world--and take up the question of how to think about the future of the humanities in an age of instrumental reason. The first two start with a particular problem or site of exploration and then work outward; the last two address directly the meaning of humanistic inquiry in the age of instrumental reason. Each is critical of the work of the humanities and, at the same time, each offers away to think through the crisis of the humanities in new ways and from different angles.
Geoffrey Harpham's essay offers an account of the ambivalent present in which the humanities finds itself, and enacts the time-honored agon with the sciences. The two might appear to share common objectives in their scholarly quest, but in any "special relationships" forged across the disciplinary divide under the banner of "consilience"--E. O. Wilson's term for "the unity of all knowledge" (1998)--the scientists are the sawier, more ruthless partners. At the same time, the symptomatic language of gain, sacrifice, triumph, and loss points to the stakes of knowing when, and how, to cross the border into a potentially unfriendly territory. The scientists' likely perfidy prompts Harpham to reconsider the uses, and the usefulness, of disciplinarity. A commitment to honoring the disciplinary conventions, no matter how arbitrary and constricting, can not only redeem the humanist achievement but fuel the sciences' investment in innovation. For a humanist's and a scientist's transgressive act of cross-disciplinary collaboration to resonate, their work needs to engage with, and understand carefully, the boundaries it seeks to undermine.
Harpham considers three examples of situations in which questions that have been fruitfully explored by humanists in the past are being reframed using methodologies that emphasize regular patterns derived from extensive data sets: the work of Darwinian literary critics who examine "species-wide drives" in nineteenth-century novels; the quest for a unified "theory for the history of life and society" informed by the structural insights of high-energy-particle physicists; and the "spatial turn" whose geohumanist practitioners conceptualize historical events with the help of sophisticated digital mapping tools. In each case, Harpham suggests, it is the risk taken by scholars who cross the disciplinary divide that makes the crossing so fruitful. In sketching out the heuristic types he associates with "hard" and "soft" analyses, Harpham recasts crisis as a vital catalyst for the development of an understanding between the two parties on the opposite sides of the barricades: the key to preserving the possibility of the insight over which the war is being waged lies in the preservation of the barricade. From that perspective, the risk to the humanities posed by accounts that appear to shift the focus of inquiry decisively from the human and the contingent to the systemic and predictable lays bare the productive self-limitations of the humanistic undertaking.
Writing at the intersection of scholarly genres historically associated with humanistic learning--the dictionary entry, the excursus footnote, and the catalog annotation--Robert Gibbs explicates the workings of humanistic inquiry by modeling them for his readers. Gibbs offers a close reading of three artifacts that he sees as paradigmatic of broader strategies for encoding and decoding meaning over time. These are three pages: the "Talmudic" page on which commentaries and notes with a multiplicity of sometimes irreconcilable heuristic approaches share space with the material they seek to interpret; the humanist page, characteristic of scholarly writings that enact a direct relation of a single reader to the text; and the online page, in which the older practices of commentary and argumentation are revived via hypertextual notes. Gibbs uses a query about the meanings of page design to bring together and mediate the visual (the image of Aeneas and his children as an emblem of the humanist commitment to the preservation of the past for future generations) and the textual (a philologist's interest in the shifting sense of the terms "humanism" and "posthumous").
At issue here is the question of the relationship between humanists and (their) time. How does the understanding of that temporality itself shift historically? Beginning chronologically, with the idea of humanism born of, and defined against, the conversation about the nature of the divine, Gibbs traces the emergence of a posthumous post-humanism that, with and after Heidegger, sees finitude and perishing as the central subject of reflection, which earlier focused on trans-historical human essence. At the same time, the re-examination of the texts from the past as a source of renewed and ongoing revelation is seen as a characteristically humanist process: as Gibbs puts it, the project of reviving humanism after its death is a product of a peculiarly humanist conviction.
And more than that: in reading the various meanings of the concept of the posthumous (this time moving from the most specific to the most abstract and etymological senses), Gibbs considers the humanists' orientation towards the future--to the others beyond the writer's immediate cultural context and time. The humanist endeavor may be once again emblematized by the page of the Talmud (or of a hypertext), with its gaps of meaning and its convoluted queries across the centuries, but its most complete embodiment is the encounter of teachers and students. The aim of that principal mode of humanistic activity, Gibbs suggests, can be seen aspirationally not as a cloning of the teacher's self but as a production of a responsibility for the student's responsibility--"the reproduction of responsibility itself' that reaches beyond the agony of authorship to what Gibbs calls the possibility of a messianic humanism.
In "The Humanities and Artisanal Education," Catherine Liu puts into question two of the central paradigms according to which "instrumental reason" is typically problematized within the humanities. The first is the uncritical affirmation of technology that derives from a certain entrepreneur class (which Liu calls the "flexians"), whose guiding assumption is that the speed and flexibility of networked computing can and will provide the best solution to all contemporary problems (up to and including those faced by contemporary higher education). The second is the reactive negation of technology that comes from a certain class of self-styled craftsmen who take pride in learning "retro" handicrafts (subsistence farming, fruit canning, grain milling, home-brewing, etc.), and whose labor-intensive self-sufficiency is not only deliberately unprofitable but also, presumably for this same reason, morally redemptive.
Both of these paradigms are more nonacademic than academic: they each govern thinking about the humanities without themselves originating from or being limited to the humanities. And both circle around a symptomatic fascination with advanced technology: whereas "flexians" enthuse manically about the radically euphoric futures that technological progress inevitably will enable, craftsmen cultivate with melancholic fidelity skillsets that teletechnics and automation threaten to render superfluous (but that no doubt would prove useful in the equally radical future sometimes envisioned by this romantic anticapitalism: the melancholic triumph of complete civilizational collapse). Because of this fascination, Liu suggests, neither paradigm allows us the ability to fully think through the problem of instrumental reason. And nowhere is this inability more acutely pronounced than when those paradigms come to dominate disputes over the future of the humanities.
If the "flexian" paradigm allows its proponents to feel authorized by their mastery of advanced computing to dictate a future for the humanities that (obviously) must be digital and networked, independently of any question of whether or not this future will be friendly to the modes of study and thought that for so long have characterized the best and most retrievable traditions of the humanities, the "craftsman" paradigm requires a future that doubles down on hipster asceticism, preserving the humanities by moralistically refusing any contact with the digital and the network. It disavows, as Liu points out, the sense in which the "handmade" is, far from opposing the profit motive, the very category with reference to which the most expensive liberal arts colleges justify their excessive costs.
To break out of this stalemate, Liu offers the reader a close reading of two texts that, particularly when juxtaposed to one another, outline another framework altogether for thinking through the problem of instrumental reason. In Hou Hsiao-hsien's 2008 film Flight of the Red Balloon and Ann Agee's sculpture series Agee Manufacturing, Liu finds techniques of contemplative attention that allow thought to "hold together" or "cohere" not despite but because of its immersion in the volatile contradictions of teletechnical capitalist culture. In both cases, these are the techniques of the "good enough mother" famously theorized by the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott. This is the mother whose embrace of her child allows her to be present for her child even as her attention remains elsewhere, distracted by some other task or object; and whose distraction, far from "stunting" the growth of her child's intellect, is in fact the paradoxical support that allows the child's very "desire to know" to flicker into being in the first place.
Unlike Martha Nussbaum, who mobilizes Winnicott's theory of "play" as a paradigm for restoring redemptive substance to humanistic pedagogy, Liu is not inclined to instrumentalize her readings of Hou's cinema and Agee's ceramics as "models" for a remoralized humanities. Rather, Liu is content to learn from these texts something about what it might mean for a coherent "desire to know" to emerge and thrive under conditions that are riven by all of the forces of contemporary teletechnics, and that as such involve considerable instability and even volatility. Emerging as they do at the vanishing point where the excessive attention of "craftsman" enters into non-relation with the distracted inattention of the "flexian lords of chaos" (as Liu has put it elsewhere), the practices of "good-enough mothering" leave us with a provocative and important question: what might we learn about the problem of instrumental reason if, instead of supposing that thought and technique are necessarily in opposition to one another, we instead suppose that the techniques of certain modes of "mothering" and those capable of producing "epistemophilia" (as Melanie Klein might put it; 1986, 98, 105) are and, under certain conditions, must be indistinct?
If Liu's contribution to this special issue invites the reader to embrace the "holding" of the "good enough mother" as an image for thought itself, John Mowitt's essay questions the way that a certain figure of "the hand" has come to underwrite the lexicon of conceptuality as such--the lexicon, that is to say, that allows humanists to say that "grasping" is the name of what we do when we think. Beginning with a passage from Friedrich Engels's 1876 fragment on "The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man" and then moving on to texts by Andre Leroi-Gourhan, Denis de Rougemont, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida, Mowitt assembles a genealogy of humanist thinkers for whom "the hand" is, consistently, that "instrument" which allows the human to acquire its humanity--its capacity for speech and reason--in the first place. Although this genealogy may at first strike the reader as "marginal" to the mainstream concerns of the secular humanities, it is in fact quite central to that genealogy. As a general rule, we might even say, the more a given humanism embraces "secularism," the more it may be expected to embrace as well the "paleontological" origins of the human, and the more too, therefore, it may be expected to think the human--however implicitly--within the horizon of "the hand." For Mowitt, this genealogy provides the occasion to pose searching questions to those humanists who understand their duty today to be the defense of the humanities against "instrumental reason."
If the hand is indeed that instrument which allows the human to become human in the first place, Mowitt observes, then the humanism that defines itself in opposition to "instrumental reason" will succeed only in proving itself completely out of touch with it own reality. The humanist who today defines the work of thinking in opposition to "hands-on learning"--or, differently, to the "digital humanities"--can do so only by foreclosing upon the rigorous sense in which humanist thinking itself has been "hands-on" and "digital" from the very beginning. To the iteration of humanities that presupposes the humanism of the hand, Mowitt thus presents an insoluble aporia. Not only will this humanism remain incapable of thinking its own activity on its own terms (remaining unable to "grasp" the conditions under which it finds itself compelled to think thinking as "grasping"); it also will remain incapable of thinking its own constitutive exclusions (its felt need, in particular, to separate the "human" from the "animal" before, and in order to begin, thinking at all). Nonidentical with itself on its own terms, this humanism is unable to think the negation that allows it to identify itself in the first place.
Having put a finger on this impasse, Mowitt brings it to bear on the strange asymmetry that characterizes humanist discourses on "the hand," where the activities and abilities of the right hand aren't just prioritized over those of the left hand, but are also taken as the paradigm for the hand as such. Even attempts to think the two hands together as equals tend to end up evaluating the left hand on the implicit model of the right hand (as though "ambidexterity" were a matter of having two right hands). In contrast to these discourses, Mowitt poses a very different question: what would it mean to think the left hand on its own terms--without reference to the right? And what mode of thinking, if any, would be up to that task? Implicit in this question is the wager that the left hand is more than just a "weak" or "sinister" version of the right. In Mowitt's hands, in fact, the left hand becomes a different sort of hand altogether, a hand that points to the possibility of a completely different mode of thinking: a style of thinking that would do its work not by "grasping" or even "holding" so much as by a certain blind tracing or tapping, a patient and tentative "finding" of problems, up to and including that "finding" which "finds problematic" the categories of the human and humanism themselves.
And this, in turn, provides the best way to understand the unusual title of Mowitt's essay: "On the One Hand, and the Other." At first glance, this title is bound to strike the reader as incomplete: if this title begins with "the one hand," why does it not then round out with the "the other hand"? On second thought, however, one realizes that the assumption underlying this question is exactly what Mowitt's title most puts into question. "On the One Hand" should be read as a parallel construction not with the idiom "on the other hand," but rather with the titles of such essays as Heidegger's "On the Line" or Arendt's "On Revolution." Mowitt's essay, that is to say, is a critical inquiry into the very paradigm of "the one hand," one that responds to Derrida's call for "another history of the hand" (2005, 21) and Stiegler's analyses of "the retreat of the hand" (2011, 146-49). At issue in the paradigm of "the one hand" is a tradition of humanism in which self-mastery and mastery of the world alike are predicated on the hand's ability to grasp or grip. By tracing the constitutive limits and impasses of that tradition, Mowitt feels his way toward an altogether different approach to the work of thinking itself.
Understood in this sense, the most thought-provoking element in Mowitt's title is not its incompletion but the inconspicuous comma that both joins and disjoins "the one hand" and "the Other." This comma certainly marks a pause and a gap; but it is also, for this very same reason, a mark of desire. It designates the movement according to which any consistent humanist inquiry into "the one hand" must become inconsistent with humanism itself, turning humanism against its own foundations while also treating the "retreat of the hand" as a chance for thought to begin doing without hands altogether. A pause that opens up desire, a desire that opens up space for free improvisation--not unlike a syncopated backbeat or half-cadence, this is a comma that snaps the reader to attention. We mark time, we march in place, we seem to go nowhere--we stop and think. It's as if we have "found a problem."
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The authors wish to thank Laura Merchant for her careful editing of this text.
(1) On the "perennial" character of this claim, see Harpham 2005, 21-22; Soeiro and Tavares 2012, 2-3. On the "somewhat obsessive" character of this claim, see Menand 2010, 61-63. On the "inevitability" of the word "crisis" in contemporary discussions of the humanities, see Said 2004, 31. For exemplary expressions of this claim, see Nussbaum 2010, 112; Fish 2010a; 2010b. To be clear, we do not dismiss the situation generally designated by this claim: to us, as well, there are many signs that the future of the humanities today seems to be in doubt (Armitage et al. 2013; Berube 2013).
(2) As Roitman argues, all declarations of crisis mobilize historical narratives that, in turn, foreclose upon some itineraries from past to future while emphasizing others (2014, 3, 12). Precisely this seems to have been the case in the "crisis of the humanities" that took place in England in the 1960s and 1970s, when a series of economic, political, and cultural forces converged to problematize "Englishness," and when declarations of a "crisis in the humanities" doubled as calls for scholars to defend against feelings of incoherence, anxiety, and uncertainty by hewing to new and better academic standards, and by providing new and better understandings of English national identity (Hall 1990, 21). Although today's declarations of the "crisis of the humanities" also seem to be uttered as a defense against feelings of incoherence, anxiety, and uncertainty, they seem to imply a very different political stake--the problematization of "human rights" under conditions of globalization (Morrison 2005, 715-17)--the outcome of which, at this point, still remains far from clear.
(3) See Hall 1990, 18. As Hall puts it, "cultural studies in Britain emerged precisely from a crisis in the humanities" (11, emphasis in original).
(4) Needless to say, this questioning should extend to include the practice of "questioning" itself. The motif of the question is as central to the traditional humanities as it is to the "post-humanism" of Martin Heidegger, where it assumes a highly dogmatic form. See on this point Foucault 2000, 6-89; Lyotard 1984, 37; Derrida 1989. One might be tempted to draw a distinction between the question as metanarrative (exemplified by Heidegger) and the sorts of questions that emerge in the absence of any metanarrative. Under contemporary conditions, however, the absence of metanarrative (generated through a hasty reading of Lyotard's Postmodern Condition) itself has become a dominant metanarrative. Faced with this impasse, it becomes necessary to come to terms with the persistence, within bodies of contemporary scholarship that seem self-assured of their critical distance from the philosophy of history, of certain categories that are central to the philosophy of history, most notably that of "the event."
(5) Some attention has been devoted to the accounts of that golden age, and competing narratives of rise and fall proliferate. They differ in details of chronology and casts of characters but share the nostalgic sense of a world in which the value of humanistic pursuits was less in doubt by the unnamed "general public"--and by the humanists themselves. See, for example, Steiner 2012, 26ff.
(6) The question for Snow was not whether the global gap between the rich and the poor was going to close, but who was going to close it: the Soviet Union or the capitalist West (1993, 46-51).
(7) Britain, Snow worried, would turn into an "enclave within an enclave" (1993, 50).
(8) A similar point could be made about divisions and continuities within the ostensible community of humanists itself. Although scholars of language are certainly understood as humanists, it is sometimes difficult to name what humanistic concerns are shared by (say) a theoretical linguist working with data from phonological studies and a philosopher of language.
(9) As Said (2004) puts it, "the core of humanism is the secular notion that the historical world is made by humans and not by God" (11).
(10) "Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth is radiant with triumphant calamity" (Horkheimer and Adorno 2002, 1).
(11) In his 1790 Critique of Judgment, Kant places special emphasis upon the power of the imagination to comprehend lawless and as-yet uncomprehended nature "as if" it were governed by thoroughly interconnected laws. The imagination--the ability to speak "as if" lawless nature were governed by laws--is therefore an aesthetic category (because it fabricates ex nihilo a sense of "purposiveness" that is not grounded in the laws of reason or the schemata of the understanding) and the category par excellence of the purposeful, teleological future (because it sketches out in advance the domain in which reason and the understanding later will comprehend the laws of nature in a grounded, schematized, and purposeful manner; Kant 2000, 70-71). In his 1927 "The Future of an Illusion," Sigmund Freud will name this same logic (albeit in the declension given to it by Hans Vaihinger in 1922) as one of the symptoms of compensatory religious thought (Freud 1961, 28-29, 33-34)
Both of these iterations, the Kantian and the Freudian, are implicit in Jacques Derrida's analysis of the humanities in his 1999 lecture called "The University Without Condition." There Derrida argues that the ability to speak of truths "as if" they were true, is one of the constitutive conditions of any utterance that qualifies as a "profession," whether that utterance be a "profession of belief" in a theological sense, or the secularized "professions" uttered by "humanities professors" (whose very vocation is defined by the capacity for this sort of utterance). When Derrida proposes that it is the capacity to speak from the standpoint of the "as if" that confers unity upon the epistemic field of the humanities, he is, then, not only implying that the very vocation of the "humanities professor" depends upon its secularization of a theological form (the "profession of faith"); he is also implying that, in a systematic sense, all utterances in the humanities are always already, by necessity, utterances about the future. The "new" or "coming" humanities, in Derrida's view, cannot come into being absent inquiry into this subtle but decisive problematic (Derrida 2002, 230-37). Gayatri Spivak, meanwhile, argues that the interrelated problems of the "as if" and the "future of the humanities" call for a post-Kantian critique--a critique defined by the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of imagining the world as a "whole" under conditions of globalization (Spivak 2005, 718-20).
(12) On the problematic of the "experiment" within the humanities, see Weber 2000; Arendt 1961, 14-15.
ADAM SITZE is Associate Professor of Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought at Amherst College. He is the author of The Impossible Machine: A Genealogy of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2013). He is the editor of Carlo Galli's Political Spaces and Global War (2010) and co-editor of Biopolitics: A Reader (2013).
AUSTIN SARAT is Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science at Amherst College and Hugo L. Black Visiting Senior Scholar at the University of Alabama School of Law. He is author or editor of more than ninety books including The
Killing State: Capital Punishment in Law, Politics, and Culture (2001), When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition (2002), The Cultural Lives of Capital Punishment: Comparative Perspectives (2005), Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America's Death Penalty (2014), and Punishment in Popular Culture (2015).
BORIS WOLFSON is Associate Professor of Russian at Amherst College, where he teaches literature, cultural history, film, and performance studies. His monograph on theatricality and subjectivity in Stalinist culture is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2015.
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|Title Annotation:||INTRODUCTORY ESSAY|
|Author:||Sitze, Adam; Sarat, Austin; Wolfson, Boris|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2015|
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