Sunday, December 20, 2009

After the End of Everything, Then What? Medieval Studies, the Humanities, and the Post-Catastrophe

Figure 1. Prypiat School, post-Chernobyl (Ukraine)


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 [2009]: 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:

BABEL promises that a good (and intellectually invigorating) time will be had by all. Queries can be directed to Eileen Joy ( or Michael Johnson (


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

What a chilling meditation. I oscillate between two feelings: that we academics are natural born doomsayers and our love of the apocalyptic can distract us from actually intervening in the process of change (a process that in fact tends to be more incremental than seismic, even if it keeps seeming to be the latter); and that our propensity to keep projecting the present into the future as if the latter were always going to be an extension of the former blinds us to the fact that in fact the future can be disturbingly discontinuous with the present in ways that we recognize only retrospectively.

In other words I don't know if we are on the verge of everything ending, or if that verge is the place we've always inhabited.

Eileen Joy said...

Like you, Jeffrey, I am mainly skeptical of apocalyptic thinking--it usually doesn't end well, either for millennialist doomsayers or Chicken Little. For me, thinking "after the end" is actually more a utopic mode of thought for the cultivation of the very discontinuous futures you mention. Sometimes, so mired in the present, we can't see beyond it, as you indicate. I think of this, especially, in relation to the job market situation and the so-called "waning" of the humanities in general. A lot of anxiety that coalesces around this state of affairs centers upon the anxious hope of wanting things to stay the same [to maintain the status quo]. As dismayed as I am by what is happening, job-wise, I also see it as a positive opportunity for productive reflections on new directions for the humanities.

I did not mean the post to be chilling, but I think it's productive, too, to reflect on the fact that, all around us, in the past and present, there are all sorts of real catastrophes and apocalypses [war, genocide, natural disasters, etc.] that call for reflection on the kind of work the humanities can do in and around such sites. While composing this post, I re-read Primo Levi's "The Drowned and the Saved," where he reflects that culture may actually be of no good whatsoever in the Lager. But he also recalls a moment when, to preserve his sanity, he taught a fellow prisoner, who was not Italian, how to recite Dante.

ken tompkins said...

Let's imagine a future -- not too far off -- when we actually need humanists and every college and university is hiring. Will students, then, take humanities courses?

I guess what I'm asking is for us to separate the terrible job market from the changes in popular culture resulting in a strong rejection of the humanities.

We haven't lost humanities positions merely because we don't have the money to pay for them or because gray faculty have decided not to retire until their 70's thereby severely limiting the number of open jobs. There have been cultural changes that have diminished the value of the humanities in the public's and administrators' eyes. And, in some ways, folks, we have brought this on ourselves.

Sorry, Eileen, I think I remember you stating some time ago that you reject self-blame. Maybe not. I have, in your past writing, been incredibly impressed with your ability to think out side the box.

If I had to start a college again (I did so in 1970) I'm not sure I would shape it anything like what my college has become. Humanists would be there but not as they are today.

Sorry to ramble; Eileen does that to me.

Eileen Joy said...

Ken: thanks for your further comments here; I've been thinking a lot more about your and also Jeffrey's comments as prods to more carefully think through our aims for this conference. I think it's a good point to separate the current state of the humanities job market from our ruminations on possible futures [emphasis on the plural] for the humanities and the kind of work that can be done under the banner of the humanities. I also realize that you're asking us to think more about how, if the humanities are losing some ground, job-wise, it is not necessarily tied only to a lack of funding for higher education in general or some sort of stasis in retirements or hiring in general, but that there are more broad changes an shifts in the culture at large that have led to a de-valuing of the kind of work [reading/thinking/writing] that we do, and further [as you are implying, I think], we scholars working in literature departments and the like have contributed to this state of affairs? [I would actually like to hear more of your thoughts on that particular point--is it because, in your estimation, we have made our discipline too esoteric and unapproachable, or something else?]

In any case, regardless of all the reasons why the humanities might be in a little bit of trouble [measured, I realize, in all sorts of ways, with the "trouble" being perceived as fatal or just temporary or maybe even as not the problem some perceive it to be--in other words, the so-called "state" of the humanities is contestable and often even *feels* different depending on which institution you might be attached to/employed by], I think it is always a worthwhile exercise to imagine the possibilities for a newly invigorated humanities, and to work toward those with as much energy as possible, regardless of contingent circumstances. Weirdly, I find so-called looming "ends" very productive sites for imagining and building new things [especially new communities]. I take Jeffrey's point very much to heart regarding how important it is to intervene in the process of change, no matter how incrementally, and that is what I [think/hope] I have been doing with my own career all along, both within the institutions where I work [where I have led initiatives in curricular and other reforms] and across institutions and disciplines [through the BABEL Working Group].

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


But sometimes I think this kind of work, although important and sustaining of persons, programs, careers, scholarship, etc., can also be a bit nearsighted, situated as it often is within existing institutions. One question might be: how to imagine wholly new institutions of so-called "higher learning" in which the humanities, in partnership with other disciplines, might completely restructure the university we have inherited [partly from the lyceum of Plato, partly from the Middle Ages, and partly and most regrettably from 18th- and 19th-century Germany] into something more 'modern', but 'modern' in a way that makes the humanities central to, say, the problems and desires of the present we inhabit? [This would be to riff off of Ken's suggestion of a future in which humanists are in *more* and not *less* demand]. That's a weird thing to say, I know, and perhaps even nuts: how can anything be thoroughly 'modern' anyway? We have shelves of books on that subject and it's so hard to describe the present we inhabit [although many brilliant people do a fairly decent job of it: Anthony Giddens, Scott Lash, Ulrich Beck, Kenneth Gergen, Bryan Turner, William Connolly, Jodi Dean, Charles Johnson, Slavoj Zizek, Niklas Luhmann, and other social, political, and critical theorists]. Now I am rambling, but this is just another way for me to say that, as a rubric for the conference, "after the end" does not so much denote real catastrophes and apocalypses as it creates space for thinking the future of the humanities [and medieval studies more epsecially] with the present both in and out of mind, if that makes any sense. But on a more literal level, the conference also asks us to think about the role of the humanities in real catastrophes, which are all around us, every day [both locally and personally and more globally].

ken tompkins said...

Eileen asked me to enlarge upon my perception that we are much to blame for the decline of the humanites (but see the links below).

Foolishly rising to the bait, I offer the following [I hasten to add that these are the result of 45 years of teaching, some reading, a great deal of thinking and discussion with colleagues. There is nothing imaginative or new here.]

1.We have disconnected the humanities from most other bodies of knowledge; indeed, we have disconnected the humanities disciplines from each other.

2.We have disconnected the humanities from work, from the arenas where the humanities can be practiced.

3.We have disconnected them from the everyday existence of average folk.

4.We have disconnected ourselves from the values implicit in texts because they seem unpopular or unimportant.

5.Having disconnected ourselves from active humanities, we reject the need to practice humanistic values in our professional lives.

[I realize that the Liberal Arts are not synonymous with the Humanities but the latter is a major component of any definition of the liberal arts. Apparently, in spite of our (my) sense of the failure of the humanities, research is showing the exact opposite.]