Why Humanities?

This has been lying around for a while, and only now did I have the time to properly go through my notes for this excellent conference, which was held at the 5th of November at Birkbeck. The Why Humanities? conference gathered together some of the key figures in the UK Humanities to discuss ‘the value of their disciplines in the context of university cutbacks, with a view to developing newly articulated defences of the worth of research in the humanities.’ All the talks have been made available as podcasts via the Backdoor Broadcasting Company. Other excellent (and more timely) summaries and reports of the conference are available by Edward Harcourt here and by Nina Power here.

The keynote address by Onora O’Neill on ‘The Two Cultures Fifty Years On’ was delivered on the evening before the conference. O’Neill builds upon and responds to earlier lectures on the subject by amongst others C.P. Snow (1959 Rede lecture ‘The Two Cultures‘) and F.R. Leavis, Huxley and Arnold. According to O’Neill the idea of 2 cultures is hard to establish. Still, she argues, the differences between them remain important culturally. Hostilities remain, although, as O’Neill claims, the humanities have proven their worth and importance: the economic, cultural and political worth of humanities research is evident. How can we gain an understanding of both the natural and the human world without the work being done in the humanities? As O’Neill argues, the present hostility towards the humanities is a result of the still present tensions between the two cultures. O’Neill goes on to argue how the humanities to a certain extent make truth claims about society just as the sciences do about the natural world. As she states, representations are also interpretations. There is also the question of the interpretation of the uses of representation: discourses, languages, genres, identities, traditions, senses of identity and culture. Interpretations in this sense focus on how specific representations should be understood. O’Neill claims that she does not see how these interpretative methods differ that strongly. The humanities claim on interpretation and inference does not mean they are very emphatic or subjective, the humanities just use different ways of interpretation. As O’Neill states, good work in the humanities is every much as committed to establishing truth claims as it is the natural sciences. Furthermore the natural sciences also rely on interpretation and inference. O’Neill speculates on whether it might be the normative dimension that makes the humanities distinctive, where work in the humanities bears on action, on providing reasons to pursue certain actions instead of others. Empirical truth claims aim to fit the world, normative truth claims aim that the world fits to them: the problem lies not in what is said but in what is done. Still, there is also lots of critique on the idea of the humanities as being moral. Are certain cultural products morally better than others? These questions are hard to evidence. They can also be used in the wrong way. Still, O’Neill claims, inquiries of all sorts bare on normative claims and inquiries. Everything is fraught with ought, from linguistic norms, the use for the rules of words (our speech-acts are normative), to epistemic norms which specify conditions for enquiry. Normativity pertains natural sciences enquiry too. O’Neill concludes that we need to be more explicit; we all make assumptions and we need to discuss which ones we can acknowledge. The empirical claims in the natural sciences are also underlined by assumptions about standards and truth claims.

Stefan Collini focused in his talk entitled ‘Holding our nerve’, on how universities get more money by showing that they can make more money. They are thus funding access and impact. The universities are framed with a, what he calls, realistic rhetoric. If we however go on focusing on economic arguments, then only activities which merit economic value will get funded. Secondly, as he states, this rhetoric will also colonise our minds and will become a ritual truism. Collini argues we need to be jolted out of this numbed acquiescence. If we remove all the references to economic prosperity, is there still an argument for the value of universities then? Collini shows how when we target alumnae for donations, we use different rhetorics then when we target funders. This shows that donors not only work according to the ideas of rational robots maximising economic rewards. Cultural meaning and the value of culture is not calculatable. This rhetoric represents a loss of nerves. Do we need to take on this defensive posture, Collini asks? Among the public at large however, there is a more appreciative reservoir than this rhetoric taps into. There is a high level of enthusiasm for ideas and greater understanding, people are susceptible to the romance of ideas and the value of beauty. It is regrettable how little the public discourse makes use of this kind of arguments. There is an instrumental disdain for the humanities, which is governed by a regime of reassurance: what is asked for now in humanities research and education is a confirmation to third parties that the procedures have been followed. Collini calls this the fallacy of accountability, an empty formalism: follow the procedures and the understanding has been delivered. But the truth is that these records tell us nothing of value of what has happened.

Collini also discusses what it is we exactly do in the humanities. He makes a distinction between knowledge and understanding. We need to give more salience to our perceptions of understanding. We may not always come up with new findings, the proper response can also be assessment and understanding, learning. This is not passivity, Collini claims, for each generation to re-posses a cultural tradition is to modify and expand it. The humanities are conversational subjects. We do need to re-posses these old truths and re-asses them in new circumstances.The humanities are not about skills plus information, but about experience plus reflection. Understanding is a human activity which relies on the qualities of the understander. The results of scholarship is not a book but a man (Pattison) The matter of assessment should be understanding, not judgement. In judging work in the humanities we are in some sense judging the kind of people the scholars in the humanities have become. Where it comes to the question of justification, Collini remarks that you cannot successfully justify something if you do not share some of the values in which this justification is build. Our best defence is thus: see, this is what we do, terrific isn’t it! We should not try to re-describe the values with another paradigmatic discourse. We will make ourselves vulnerable by using these arguments, because other disciplines and economies are way better in retaining economic benefits. Collini concludes that we need to deliver what our disciplines actual do; this means appealing to non-economic values. The humanities is a place to frame these questions. No council of despair. The kinds of understanding of understanding in the humanities are part of the kinds of understanding we need to live our lives. We reach a point that goes beyond justification: we need to hold our nerves.

Joanna Burke stretched in her lecture the theme of why humanities to what it means to be human. As Burke claims, we now live in a post-human world. An anti-humanist rhetoric has emerged in response to the probable failure of humanism. It is this shift that has disoriented us under the flag of the humanities. We adapt to the sciences, taylorisms are increasingly common in humanities academia, we service the service economy, we write as disembodied observers. According to Burke part of the problem lies in how we define the Humanities. Burke calls these kinds of rhetoric the whip, the worship and the worry. In the rhetoric of the whip we see the clustering of academic disciplines: the humanities as everything that is not science. According to Burke the academic humanities are seen as a musty library. They are grouped together for pragmatic or managerial reasons. The creation of humanities departments emerges through a managerial culture that seeks to achieve economies of scale within a grant-giving ethos. In the rhetoric of worship, the humanities are put on an altarpiece celebrating narcissism. They are perceived as the study of the sum-total of human activities: greatness, monumental scale. According to Burke this celebratory approach to the humanities (behold: the human!) is much to starry-eyed. There is a lot of atrocity in the humanities that gets ignored in these kinds of rhetoric. Finally there is the concept of the humanities as fulfilling the job of worrying society. In this rhetoric they critique the self-evident universal, the starting point is not a given but a construct and the task of the humanities is critiquing these givens. Burke asks what the human object and subject of the humanities exactly is; what is this human that so interests the scholars in the humanities? And however we define a human, what does a humanist education offer to these humans? As Burke argues, in these periods of scientific and technological change we need to address problems of meaning, value and consequence, in this period of upheaval we need the humanities, there is too much work for the humanities to do. Burke argues for the need to develop a humanities of resistance. The humanities education that seeks merely to provide citizens a cultural gloss (as in the discourse of the whip and the worship) is a tepid humanities of serviceability. We want a humanities that critiques our society and its norms. This is the humanities we are fighting for.

Francis Mulhern explores what the place of the humanities is in society and with that, what the role of university institutions is. He does not want to scorn any defence for the sake of the humanities but wonders what might be a realistic defence of these issues. The humanities embody in a concentrated form certain reflexes of reason which underpin the universities. A university needs to foster special questioning, otherwise it is no different from an institute of higher technical learning. But what if this is what universities turn into? As Mulhern states, it is hard to move from resistance to the formulation of alternatives. Mulhern goes on to analyse the characteristics of the form and ethos of university management: what are the characteristics of corporatism? What we see is the rise of things that are objectifiable, the rise of quantifications as a means of justification. We see the grow of goals and achievements. Reputation needs to be captured in scores and achievements. Furthermore university corporatism is characterised by financialisation, the second phase in which these scores are transcoded into money. The problem is that financial targets will bring forth the goals of academic work: it all centers around follow the money. These processes of quantification and financialisation are obscuring the goal of universities, Mulhern states. Finally there is bureaucratisation: institutional power gets to be represented in strata of functionaries. The essential binding discipline is corporatism: the whole rules over the parts, the metaphor of the body distinguishes it from more democratic perceptions of organisation. The driver is competition, corporatism is suited for battle and for reconstruction. There is a call for corporate discipline and realism. Universities need to follow these conditions. But realism can evolve pathological, tough realism is a reductionism. Conformity with the known order is the first criterium, the other is adequacy. If it is not adequate concerning its own ends, it is also not realistic. And this is where realism turns into pragmatism. And this is what is now happening. Mulhern concludes that the corporatist ethos in itself works against the values of the Humanities. Why should we have humanities? There is still the sense of culture and multiculturalism. What has been absent is any sense of what the needs of democracy might be. The demands of a properly functioning democracy is what needs to be explored in the humanities.

Kate Soper discussed in her lecture the difference in vocabulary use between the sciences and the humanities. What might be an issue in the humanities is not so much a lack of vocabulary but a failure of it being taken serious enough. The problem is not with the discourse but with the failure of society to act upon it. What matters is not one’s personal development but what niche one fulfils in the economic development. This mismatch reflects the larger disjunction between ethical ideas of society and the economic governance. Soper argues that there is a crisis of legitimation in the humanities. The market ethos is so dominant that cultural self-realisation as a pedagogical aim (such as argued for by Matthew Arnold) has gone down. Universities have ceased to attempt to pursue anything but the economic agenda. Humanistic developments are not even paid lip-service anymore. Now we only focus on a more realistic but ultimately unsustainable agenda. Pragmatism rules, as does elitism. Humanities is for the rich. Education as Bildung is under threat. And we as academics have by large gone along with these agendas, we have not really challenged this. But we should not give up. Humanities study gives space for the reflection on conventions. Where the humanities could make a difference is in promoting a counter-political agenda. We need to escape the dominant model of what is perceived as the good live. We need a shift in values foreshadowing the gusto of economic and material culture and hedonist perception.

Quentin Skinner also targeted the idea that value is translated in social and economic benefits, which explain the usefulness of the proposed research. This looks like an easy condition, he states. However, the current paymasters want to know what the value is of the use of knowledge itself. The value of understanding needs to be distinguished from the value of usefulness, Skinner explains. We should not too readily yield to the point of usefulness. Furthermore, how do we define usefulness, are feelings of awe and gratification in the face of beautiful objects not useful feelings for people to have? To engage with the sort of demands of the research councils, where our knowledge should be targeted at the design of institutions, policies and the forwarding of welfare etc, is to allow our minds to be colonized with a discourse which is inimical to research in the humanities. Who can know in advance what can be useful? Skinner reflects upon Petits program in Princeton on the salience of free action and civil liberty. He goes on to show how Zapatero read Petit’s book and asked him to redesign Spanish government. This, Skinner claims, shows how the humanities can meet the most thorough demands concerning usefulness. But an associated moral is that we shall buy the humanities short that only some of the humanities can have this kind of impact. Many kinds of humanities reflect many kinds of values. But there are forms of humanities research that have a clear impact. Some humanists do practice a practical outcome research. This is what we should currently be more envisaging.


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