mortality of the humanities

“When the academic humanities are finally, definitively destroyed by the studied, self-important irrelevance of theorists’ dogmatically inaccessible progressivist stance, no one will be able to complain that there were not cogent warnings of what was to come.” –Erin O’Connor

If the academic humanities are finally destroyed–and reports of this impending destruction are greatly exaggerated–it will not be because of theorists. Death will come when people finally give in to the notion that institutions of higher education should be financially profitable enterprises run like corporations, and when they give in to the notion that the purpose of higher education is to allow those who partake of its benefits to earn more money at their jobs. What chance do the humanities have then? It won’t matter if humanities academics are writing like Jacques Derrida or like Cleanth Brooks. All the good writing in the world will not save the academic humanities at that point.

“This thing upon me like a flower and a feast. This thing upon me crawling like a snake. It’s not death, but dying will solve its power … And as my hands drop a last desperate pen in some cheap room they will find me there and never know my name, my meaning, nor the treasure of my escape.” -Charles Bukowski

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10 thoughts on “mortality of the humanities

  1. Reading Erin’s site, I kept thinking “Didn’t we just have this argument a few years ago?” I just don’t understand what, exactly, the detractors are saying. Butler and Bhabha are difficult to read? Gotcha. Try to write clearly? Gotcha. Are these things we’re not supposed to know already?
    I did find it funny, however, that I was prepping to teach a Bhabha essay tomorrow night when I saw your post.

  2. Hell, Scott, I’m pretty sure this argument was going on 15 years ago when I was first learning about theory as an undergrad English major…
    Mostly, I just popped by to say Amen to your point here, George. And I’d add, too, that the “intellectual diversity” nonsense that doesn’t show any sign of dying is a far greater danger than the opacity of Butler or Bhabha. The strategy seems to be to get us to think of education in corporate terms, and then to regulate the hell out of it.

  3. While I don’t think bad, obscure, convoluted writing helps, I agree with you. But there’s a sense that the critics of theory are trying to have it both ways: they simultaneously say that Butler et al are a tiny inward looking clique only talking to each other AND that they are a huge threat to the entire field of humanities. There is so much ‘humanities’ you can do without ever needing to pick up these particular theorists (I have in the past had a go with Butler but have never read anything by Bhabha). I’d argue that an at least equal threat to the health of the humanities is from those who focus on attacking Butler et al in a way that gives out the impression that that is all the field is about…

  4. The fact is that you’d really have to go out of your way to avoid the reams of pages of lucid, fascinating, contemporary scholarship and criticism in the academic humanities. I want to know more about the motives of people who do go out of their way in order to focus on those they dislike so strongly.

  5. I absolutely agree with George on this one. It isn’t Butler that decreases the number of English majors each year; it’s the increasing perception that all university education should be directly vocational. Focusing on the opacity of some theory at this point is like worrying about whether you left the stove on while the house is burning around you.
    The Bukowski quotation makes me think: all the institutions that support the love of writing, the love of reading, the love of independent thinking, the love of word-play are dying (or significantly changing in a way that doesn’t nurture that love). Newspapers and print media are dying. English departments are dying. High school literature classes are dictated by testing requirements. How will a potential writer even connect with her calling, or the potential reader connect with his pleasure, if all opportunities for exposure (much less support) die away?

  6. I have been suggesting for some time now that the easiest way for universities to overcome their various budget problems is simply to stop giving out diplomas at graduation and give receipts instead.

  7. Add another voice to the chorus of agreement. This reminded me of something I’ve wondered before and I’m wondering if any of you have also noticed how common it is for literary studies specifically and the humanities generally to be singled out for using jargon? Why should any person who can read be able to understand a specialized book or article in a humanities discipline when they do not expect to be able to understand advanced research and writing in physics or bio-chemistry? Isn’t this just one further example of the fact that the humanities aren’t regarded as “real” fields of study in the corporatized American university, and might not this also symbolize why students would stop majoring in English? If it’s not a real degree and you won’t get a job at the end of it, then why bother? And only real disciplines have the right to use specialized language.

  8. Totally agree with Dr. Crazy on this one.Sadly, I know of a former colleague who tells students (at a liberal arts college no less) to major in a “real” major like physics or chemistry, instead of one of those bogus humanities. Nice.

  9. Depends on what you mean by “jargon.” I just finished slogging through 100+ books for a bibliographical essay, and the real problem was rarely specialized technical language. The unreadable books usually featured passive voice crashing headlong into nominalized verbs.

  10. Agreed, Miriam. The problem with that notorious Judith Butler prize-winning sentence is not in itself the use of specialised language. It’s the hideous, excessive (why use 3 syllables when 5 will do? why use 5 words when 10 will do?), clunking, unpunctuated way all those words are strung together to make what is (I think, although I’m still not quite sure) quite a straightforward statement seem a) impenetrable and b) too mind-numbing to be worth attempting a translation anyway.
    I agree with Dr C though. Why should writing in the humanities be criticised for ‘jargon’ when sciences can be entirely unintelligible to anyone without advanced science training?
    As a more positive exercise, it might be quite fun to have a ‘Bad Writing’ competition in the other sense of the word ‘bad’ – naughty, transgressive, subversive. Writing that breaks the rules to make you stop and think, and changes your view of the world. (And I’m aware that the theory people frequently claim this as their justification for ‘bad’ writing. Except that quite a lot of them don’t seem to know the difference between bad-naughty and just plain bad-terrible. It’s time those of us who love language showed them the difference.)

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