Humanities IN crisis, or humanities AS crisis

Reading Eleonora Belfiore and Anna Upchurch‘s edited collection of essays, Humanities in the Twenty-First Century: Beyond Utility and Markets, I noted how Belfiore draws attention to the fact that the humanities seem to have continual identity drama. We have, as they say, issues. Now, this takes many forms, be it in terms of the job crisis for recently doctored researchers, or issues of public funding, or university organization, or may go even deeper to the very metaphysical justification of the humanities themselves. A nadir of this was to be seen the culture wars of the 90s and 00s, which I think we are all tired of revisiting, but which certainly moulded my early years of university education.

In reading Belfiore’s introduction chapter, “The ‘Rhetoric of Gloom’ v. the Discourse of Impact”, a tweet I had read a while ago popped into my head. It was a propos one of those periodic Twitter squalls that whips up over something or other, but unlike many tweets in such circumstances, it cut straight through the particularity of the situation, presenting a view of the grand, long, universal view.  

My lazy little cognitive leap was to apply this to the humanities itself/themselves (See?! Crisis everywhere!). If we were to take this as our basic axiom, our fundamental route into the humanities and discussions about it/them, what insights result?

What if we consider the beleaguered aspect to be constitutive of the humanities? If this were so, it is not that a solution to our supposed crisis is required, but rather than the terms by which we understand ourselves require redefinition. If I may borrow from Morecambe and Wise, we may be using all the right ideas – but not necessarily in the right order. The terms by which we define the humanities require reevaluation.

This brings me to another observation, which is that critique is central to the arts, humanities, and social sciences (AHSS). We need to make this explicit. This is our value, this is our impact. This reevaluation of all values is how we best serve society. This is how we contribute to the knowledge ecology. This is the source of coherence, of resilience, and of robustness that AHSS contributes. As it is, we  turn this laser of critique on subjects in our fields, but unwittingly we simply blind ourselves if we attempt to examine our own activities, structures, and organization. We use critique against ourselves, and so we have that entire canon of crisis, from the Blooms (Allan and Harold), up to Nussbaum and Fish. The point is that these thinkers and authors are misguided (insert the usual ‘on the contrary’), but rather that we need to find a way for these criticisms which make up the crisis, to become critique proper. That is, critique can be ‘for itself’, but its meaning, its best self is found in application, in proposing alternatives, in suggesting possible worlds where things might be different.


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