by EILEEN JOY
One thinks in the Humanities the irreducibility of their outside and of their future. One thinks in the Humanities that one cannot and must not let oneself be enclosed within the inside of the Humanities. But for this thinking to be strong and consistent requires the Humanities.
--Jacques Derrida, "The University Without Condition"
As 2009 draws to a close, the prospects for those seeking jobs in the humanities is not overly rosy, and perhaps it is even dreadful, as a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, “Disappearing Jobs” (17 Dec. 2009), indicates. And although it is often a fool’s mission to predict the future, as Jeffrey has well acknowledged in several recent posts on blogging and medieval studies, nevertheless it is difficult not to think, and worry, these days about the future (and possible demise) of many things relative to a career in the humanities: the book and other print media, traditional academic presses, the conventional classroom in which face-to-face teaching is privileged, academic literacy, literature (the short story, novel, poetry) and literary studies, historical consciousness, close and engaged reading practices, brick-and-mortar libraries and archives, and the like. We might consider, too, all of the ways in which the various ‘posts’ of the critical thought of the past twenty or so years have given us much to think about in relation to everything we are supposedly ‘after’ while still leaving the question of our present moment very much, well . . . in question. And this may be all to the good, since leaving the formulation of the present (and even of the past leading up to that present) in some suspension allows for progress and for more things to be thought, which in the final analysis may be what the humanities are ultimately for: to serve as one of the last sites of what might be called the irreducibility of thought, out of which might flow plurality after plurality of radical alternatives to whatever anyone might assert was, is, or has to be at any given moment (the humanities as factory of utopian, but also radically dissensual, contrarian, and revisionist thinking), with the literary arts, especially, serving as a rich repository of alternative universes as well as worlds we already inhabit but do not see properly or clearly enough and which cannot be fully registered or described in any other form.
But even having said this, we still have to contend with various persons continually sounding the death knell of the humanities (and within the humanities, studies of the ancient past, such as medieval studies, are often given special negative attention as being more ‘irrelevant’ and even ‘useless’ in comparison with more modern fields that supposedly have more bearing, by virtue of their temporal proximity, to our ‘real lives’), and also with op-ed writers such as Stanley Fish who, although he would never argue for the dismantling of the humanities, asserts that the humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” The thing is, he may be right—the humanities may be, as Fish avers, “their own good” (with little or no instrumental use-value), and they may even retain a certain integrity by not kowtowing to the imperative to prove their practical utility; nevertheless, this argument won’t likely help the humanities in the face of massive budget cuts that universities and colleges across the United States are currently undergoing and will continue to undergo into the near (maybe even the far) future. Even if we assert, as Bill Readings did in The University in Ruins (1996), that the humanities form an important self-critical function and maintain a unique site within the larger university for holding open the question of why we are (all) here together in the university at all, there still remains the question of the value of the special particularities of the more narrowly-defined subjects of each discipline and sub-discipline (for example, the Middle Ages, Arab-Jewish relations in the Middle Ages, medieval charters, early English ecclesiastical history, Frankish coins, Chaucer, and the like). On what basis, finally, do we defend our right to be funded to study absolutely everything and anything? More hopefully, I am reminded here of what Patricia Ingham recently wrote in her essay, “Critic Provocateur” (Literature Compass 6/6 : 1094–1108):
I prefer the line taken by Herman B. Wells, the former chancellor of Indiana University famous for defending provocative research at IU (including that of Alfred Kinsey): universities should, as he puts it, ‘‘provide for the esoteric, exotic, and impractical in the curriculum; the practical and pedestrian will take care of itself. If it does not, you have not lost much anyway; so I think the impractical things are the most practical and important in the long run.” (pp. 1103–4)But Ingham also writes further that,
we should know by now that adjudications of relevance — like ‘‘benchmarks’’ for publishing or teaching quality or quantity — can offer ever-receding goals that we never seem to hit. We must, thus, ask how far even arguments as to our relevance will get us, particularly at a time when resources formerly allocated toward traditional humanities programs are not only moving to other units but also being redirected to Liberal Arts programs sponsored by corporate managerial interests. In this context, it seems more helpful (both in terms of strategy and tactics) to emphasize the capacity of theoretically inclined humanities research along two avenues: its ability to offer critiques of institutional discourses and the assumptions embedded in them; its ability to provide lively avenues for new research, and for the cultivation of curiosity and imagination. (p. 1104)Here, we are back to the idea, sketched out by Bill Readings in his book, and taken up by many (including Derrida, Foucault, and Edward Said), that the humanities enact an important philosophical/critical function with respect to larger, more super-structural institutional discourses and maybe also with respect to the formation of new disciplines and modes of thought (subversively within and across disciplines). We lean heavily on the humanities’ function as philosophical and institutional provocateur at the expense, I think, of defending its more narrowly specialized knowledge domains (but how to defend those, exactly, I honestly don’t know, except with recourse to the Herman B. Wells quotation above), and I wonder sometimes if the humanities really do have special purchase on the ability to offer institutional critiques—do we really believe the scientists absorbed in their microscopes and particle accelerators are incapable of also being disciplinary, even cross-disciplinary, theoreticians of our shared, institutional situation? They also often want to pursue esoteric subjects and questions no one wants to fund. What about the social scientists whose job is often to study institutions? Do humanists, further, really have the leading edge on cultivating curiosity and imagination over any other discipline? The architecture of an orchid or a tectonic plate is as fascinating, and even as intricately demanding of the imaginative intellect, as a novel by Flaubert.
So now, somehow, we’re back to square one, and I think we have to work harder to understand and work through our dilemma—whatever that might turn out to be—in collaboration with as many researchers working in as many different areas as possible, all of whom, including us, are intimately involved with both narrowly-defined lines of inquiry as well as related, larger philosophical questions that impact upon a majority of persons situated at any one university (and beyond). These are questions that, frankly, have to do with mortality, quality of life, identity, rights, cultural practices, ethics, the cultivation of resources (both abstract and more material), democracy, freedom, justice, and the like. But, whatever the outcome of these collaborations, the whole scheme depends upon our governments (local, state, and federal) believing that funding higher education, regardless of the (hopefully) endless proliferation of its specializations (and without judging some disciplines to always be more useful than others), is a necessity no country can do without. In other words, higher education—all of it, all disciplines—has to be valued for its own sake, at whatever cost. And that is a utopic state of affairs that is doubtful in the extreme, I’m afraid.
Maybe it’s time to move somehow beyond the conventional parameters of these debates over the utility or non-utility, relevance or non-relevance, value or non-value of the humanities (which always implicitly assumes that the university as a whole somehow productively goes on, with or without the humanities, or with the humanities in diminished form), while also acknowledging that the role of the humanities within the larger university is changing in fundamental ways that threaten its historical purchase on the university’s future (which is itself shaky in certain ways), and then ask: what to do in the shadow of the (looming) end of everything? What would it mean, for example, to imagine the so-called “catastrophe” of the end of the humanities (and even the university) as a catalyst for new modes of historical, creative, and theoretical thought? What sorts of humanistic labors and thought might be possible and re-productive in the imagined site of “what happens after the end?” (which can be the end of the university but also the end of the world) and what are the very real, material outcomes that might hang in the balance of our adjudication of this imagined (dystopic/utopic) space? Or conversely, and following the thinking of Lee Edelman in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004), what sort of thinking is possible in the space of a present that refuses the future, in whatever shape, in favor of a productive negation of the idea that the humanities have any social or cultural viability at all? And what might it be possible to do and to think within a humanities evacuated of the weight of (and burden of responsibility for) the future?
To that end, the BABEL Working Group, postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies, and the University of Texas at Austin are co-organizing a conference, to be held at UT-Austin from 4-6 November 2010, for the purpose of bringing together medievalists with scholars and theorists working in later periods in order to collectively take up these questions (and more), with a special emphasis on the relation of history and the past to the present and future of the university, and of the humanities in particular. The conference will feature six plenary speakers—Paul Bowman, L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Noreen Giffney, Heather Love, Michael O’Rourke, and Zrinka Stahuljak—and you can see the more full Call for Papers here:
after the end: medieval studies, the humanities, and the post-catastrophe
Session and paper proposals are due by 1 May 2010 to: email@example.com.
BABEL promises that a good (and intellectually invigorating) time will be had by all. Queries can be directed to Eileen Joy (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Michael Johnson (email@example.com).