In the last few years, I’ve had a few conversations with colleagues here and elsewhere in which they insist that good humanistic inquiry is necessarily defined by its fundamental aversion to instrumental justifications of its own work and that teaching in the humanities should not be reduced to the development of skills, competencies or the transference of highly concrete bodies of canonical knowledge to students. Instead, they suggest, humanistic inquiry and teaching ought to be shaped by ineffable, unpredictable, highly intrinsic values, that it should refuse to reduce or quantify meaning and interpretation, that humanist inquiry is an end in and of itself, that it is more about process and less about results.
I’ve said before that I think this view sets up false or unnecessary antagonisms, partly because I’m quite partial to the idea that humanistic work disrupts, defers or messes up mechanistic or instrumental schemes of all kinds. Job one in my teaching and my writing is to confound and scramble attempts to render societies and individuals transparent, manageable, predictable, legible. I steer my boat by the star of James Scott.
I know some of the folks who feel most strongly on this score see their views as under threat primarily from outside of the humanities, associating instrumental or reductionist approaches to academic inquiry and teaching with the social sciences and natural sciences (or with administrative managerialism and corporatization). I find that rather odd given that one of the dominant approaches to humanistic scholarship and teaching over the last thirty years has argued that humanistic work must forcefully critique existing social formations, discursive regimes, constructions of identity and subjectivity and so on. If the humanities are threatened as this complaint alleges, then the threat comes first and last from within their own domain. (I’m especially frustrated when friends who would otherwise argue for humanistic inquiry to intervene quite instrumentally in ongoing political and social struggles suddenly opt for a description of humanistic work as anti-instrumental, irreducibly intrinsic, ‘inquiry for inquiry’s sake’.)
There’s another problem with this description of humanistic inquiry when it is coupled with a defense of existing academic programs, projects or prerogatives, however. Namely, that many of the best examples of humanists and intellectuals whose life’s work best matches the purity invoked in this vision weren’t academics employed by the postwar American academy. Mostly, we’re talking about intellectuals who did critical and creative work before modern research universities came into being, before tenure became an institution, before academic departments and specialized inquiry defined scholarly community, before TIAA-CREF and health benefits. Or if we’re talking post-1945 intellectuals that would serve as widely admired exemplars of a purer dedication to humanistic work, I suspect that many of the names that would leap to mind across the humanities would be people who may have taught in universities at times but whose lives were significantly untethered to the academy, financially, socially and intellectually.
I’m not saying that 19th or early 20th Century humanistic intellectuals in the West lived without compromised reliance on money or support. Some lived off inheritances or spouses, others wheedled money and support from patrons or indulgent friends. And I don’t think there’s anything good to be said for dying alone, ill, impoverished, as more than a few intellectuals have. But there is something very odd about the conflation of humanistic inquiry as an overall project with the fate of particular academic disciplines in the highly particular institutional architecture of the American academy as it has developed since 1965 or so. The grand vision that defenders of a purer humanities enunciate, if it has existed at all, existed vigorously before the university systems of today, before the comfortably professional and middle-classness of professorial lives today, and might reasonably be expected to exist in some other form after them, if they should disappear or markedly transform.
If that’s not a reasonable expectation, it falls to humanist academics who understand themselves and their projects in these terms to fill in a missing piece of their argument. How and why did humanist intellectuals become so strongly located within and wholly dependent upon the American academy and its particular institutional norms? And no fair describing that process as a process of subjugation, loss, capture or domestication, because any of those labels imply that the real priority of humanists should be to seek emancipation from academic institutions, not the preservation of their position within them. This rhetoric inevitably has to be about conservation, stewardship, the protection of an inheritance, a belief that something wonderful happened when humanists came inside the ivy-covered walls and left their starveling Parisian garrets, that a good middle-class salary and benefits enabled some new possibilities for humanists which should be valued by the society at large, which is paying for those possibilities in some way or another. (A side note: good luck describing that value in terms that don’t end up appearing instrumental or extrinsic.) Even more importantly, a humanist taking up this position has to argue that at some point in the not too distant past, those possibilities were so valued. Otherwise, why complain now of the encroaching menace of instrumentalism and managerialism? This is a stance that is very ill-served by the donning of a sackcloth and ashes, that should not complain of eternal marginalization and exclusion, nor crown itself in thorns. If it makes any sense at all, this is an argument about what the humanities gloriously achieved after 1945 by observing more and more specific kinds of disciplinary forms, by professionalization, by participation in and responsibility to institutional life, by coupling the production of intellectual work to the education of most young people rather than the instruction of a small privileged elite. This is an argument made from a presumed center, even if perhaps one which believes it is time to re-center humanistic practice in academic institutions.
I suppose it’s clear that I think this is the wrong road to travel. I think we can learn a lot from recognizing that many admirable humanist intellectuals have carried out their work outside of or at a distance from the norms of contemporary disciplines within the humanities. The lesson in that is not that the humanities in the academy are disposable, absolutely not. It might be, on the other hand, a sign that the contemporary disciplinary and institutional specificity of the practice of humanists in the American academy isn’t a necessary condition of vigorous, challenging and desirable humanistic work within contemporary universities and colleges. There are other ways to skin that cat. It might even be that intellectual work by humanists as my more traditionalist friends defend it is best served by much looser structural and organizational practices than in other divisions of academic work, that this would bring the practice of humanistic scholarship inside of the academy more in line with the deeper history of this kind of intellectual work. And maybe, just maybe, that move would also solve much of the much-fretted about “crisis of the humanities” by permitting a reconnection or reacquaintance between wider publics and humanist intellectuals.