Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Value and culture

Robert Musil's Törless concludes that "things are just things and will probably always be so. And I shall probably go on for ever seeing them sometimes this way and sometimes that, sometimes with the eyes of reason, and sometimes with those other eyes. . . ." The eyes of reason are those of the engineer, the practical  person who sees no great mystery in anything. Those other eyes see "one open chasm of the sky above our heads and one slightly camouflaged chasm of the sky beneath our feet," while the reasonable person feels "as untroubled on the earth as in a room with the door locked." The image calls to mind (but is of course not the same as) Norman Malcolm's quotation of Wittgenstein:
A person caught in a philosophical confusion is like a man in a room who wants to get out but doesn’t know how.  He tries the window but it is too high.  He tries the chimney but it is too narrow.  And if he would only turn around he would see that the door has been open all the time!  (p. 44--I believe this is the only idea of Wittgenstein's that Heidegger ever mentions)
Wittgenstein also distinguishes two ways of thinking about or seeing things in the Lecture on Ethics. One he associates with science, and labels trivial, the other he associates with religion, ethics, and aesthetics, and regards as incapable of fitting into language (any more than a gallon of tea will fit into a tea cup). The natural and the supernatural, the worldly and the otherworldly, are simply not compatible. There is no translating the language of one into the language of the other. At any rate, this seems to be the general idea here.

That's what comes to mind when I read this and this. The first is a reasonable-sounding suggestion that we make the relevance of the humanities to the real world evident in our teaching:
For the past year, I have been a member of a several nursing search committees. In their teaching presentations, the candidates almost always stated clearly “Now we’re going to learn to think critically. Let’s begin by defining it.” I am wondering whether doing something similar in humanities classes might not help our students more clearly see the value of the humanities...
I don't mean to reject this kind of thing completely (perhaps I should), but it has some problems. One is that it seems likely to become tedious very quickly. Why not just always insist on defining terms that need to be defined, so that students get into the habit of doing this? From time to time we could point out the practical value of this habit, but almost always stating that you are about to learn to think critically before doing so would surely drive everyone mad. Secondly, what are students going to think when you don't preface your remarks or activities with words like these? That this part of the class is a waste of time? That seems quite likely to me. A friend of mine recently suggested that the point of teaching Victorian literature is to teach students how to construct an argument. That surely is not the whole point of it. The point has to do with the value of (some) Victorian literature, and its importance in and to our culture. If we give up on the idea of intrinsic aesthetic value and the importance of culture, then we give up on the humanities.

My second linked "this" above refers to a piece by Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed about a book by Toby Miller called Blow Up the Humanities. It sounds dreadful, but I haven't read it and so should bite my tongue. In McLemee's words:
What we must recognize, his argument goes, is that there are two forms of the humanities now. What the author calls "Humanities One" (with literature, history, and philosophy at their core) is just the privileged and exclusionary knowledge of old and dying elites, with little value, if any, to today’s heterogeneous, globalized, wired, and thrill-a-minute world. By contrast, we have studies of mass media and communications making up “Humanities Two,” which emerged and thrived in the 20th century outside “fancy schools with a privileged research status.”
In the future we must somehow establish a third mode: “a blend of political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies such that students learn the materiality of how meaning is made, conveyed, and discarded.” Enough with the monuments of unaging intellect!
According to his website:
Miller ultimately insists that these two humanities [One and Two above] must merge in order to survive and succeed in producing an aware and concerned citizenry.
So literature, philosophy  and history are irrelevant and must be replaced by the study of "how meaning is made" so that citizens become "aware and concerned." Students are to be made aware without being made aware of history, presumably, and to study meaning without studying the philosophy of language. And the people who fund public (non-elite) education are expected to pay for this? The non-privileged students who study it are expected to be able to get jobs with these skills (or this awareness and concern)? Art for art's sake I can buy. The same goes for raising political consciousness through the study of history and philosophy. But political goals without history or philosophy? The humanities without literature, or with some literature but with ethnography and environmental studies taking the place of some literature? This doesn't sound like the humanities at all any more. It sounds like a doomed attempt to replace the humanities with some hodgepodge of amateur science or pseudo-science. I feel the open chasm beneath our feet.


  1. it's hard to tell on the basis of these second- or third-hand reports, but the proposed third mode basically sounds like a successor to the mix that has sustained humanities study at its higher ends since english became an academic discipline (and, i expect, around the same time that the cult of art-for-art's-sake and the practices of criticism-after-the-romantics, trying to unite political, literary, philosophical (religious / sociological / anthropological), and natural concerns became permanently institutionalized). there is political economy for something pertaining to the justness of the state or society, as well as for reflexive application to the practice and criticism of humanistic undertakings (what are we doing reading these books all the time?? is it having some kind of POLITICAL consequences?? etc.); textual analysis as a more inclusive/extensive successor to various things like close reading, interpretation, literary criticism, rhetoric, etc. (and probably including all kinds of 'texts', cultural-studies style); ethnography as the successor to, essentially, philosophical anthropology, again either as a source of content or interpretative frame for content of texts, or to be reflexively applied to the practices themselves or to feed into the political economy stuff (depends on which of these areas your dispensation of the humanities ends of privileging, i guess); and environmental studies as the successor of the arts' traditional interest in human beings' place in nature or relation to the natural world, as well as the intended replacement to other conceptions of the sciences or other representative sciences (physics, biology, cognitive science), to serve as something like as the humanities' perpetual antagonist or conscience as far as the relation between human imagination and fact goes.

  2. So you think it sounds all right, then? I have no particular objection to any one part of it. And I agree that it's hard to judge based on a secondhand account (plus a quick browse of Miller's website). But having said that, these are my concerns: a) how do we ensure that the blend allows for rigor and depth, so that it is not merely a hodegpodge?, b) who will teach this stuff (are there PhD programs in ethnography, for instance, or will it be taught by enthusiastic non-specialists)?, c) are all these elements of the mix to be additions to (OK by me) or substitutes for (less OK) the old-fashioned disciplines?, d) if they are replacements, on what grounds do we believe them to be better or more important than what they are replacing?, e) what is the point meant to be? (that's not a rhetorical question), f) if the point is somehow intrinsic to the study itself, how is that different from, or better than, art-for-art's-sake? (or perhaps it isn't meant to be), g) if the point is political, isn't there a danger that it will all become an exercise in propaganda (and might that not backfire, given how opposed many conservative politicians already are to the liberal arts)? I think that's about it. As I said, I'm not against textual analysis, or political economy, or ethnography as such. It's the prospect of replacing supposedly out-dated subjects such as history and philosophy (subjects that I value) with a blend of these other subjects or practices that bothers me. I'd at least like to know what the argument in favor of doing this is.

  3. well, i don't know about right, but it doesn't seem like the total replacement for or rejection of the past configuration of disciplines that you seemed to take it to be. i think the place for history in the disciplines mentioned might actually be the most pertinent thing to ask about, though i suppose there are traditional roles for history to play in political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies, if not obviously any that preserve its autonomy. one might also ask about how performance (e.g.) fits in, since the performing and plastic arts seem most short-changed by a configuration that would presumably house english, rhetoric, film, and so on under 'textual analysis'.

    but i took the 'third mode' to be envisioned as a successor ('one and two must combine') meant to organize the split humanities traditions, rather than replacing them, necessarily. and to organize by trying to select and emphasize developments that have already taken place within existing traditions. of course, that is a bit of a power move.

    i'm not sure what in the description given would make us think that rigor or depth would necessarily be lacking. are rigor and depth to be found in the humanities now? and is there any reason to believe that it's the existence of philosophy in the curriculum that guarantees their presence?

    i don't know about teaching. ethnography tends to be associated with different sub-fields of anthropology, but also sometimes with sociology. i think the existence of disputes among the social sciences as to which, if any, ought to be primary might suggest a reason that ethnography was chosen here, since it (as far as i know) tends to be associated with participant-centered observation of practices within their milieus, i.e., it aims to be non-scientistic, historically and environmentally situated, and ethically nonjudgmental where points of cultural difference are concerned (so it's a good 'foundational science' for humanistic study?).

    not sure about the point. don't the disciplines mentioned under the third mode suggest a plurality of contested points, which is basically the same as the humanities now? and there is evidently some focusing of the political point intended (necessarily, since environmental questions seem to have been elevated compared to their non-institutionalized place during the twentieth century?), but i'm not sure how it's any more propagandistic than the presumptions favoring liberal individualism (as in liberal-arts-ism) throughout existing or older configurations of the humanities. and those older configurations did find room for -some- alternatives that questioned the prevailing arrangement and the point of it.

  4. In the late 90s I was in a meeting with a very senior education civil servant who was bemoaning the fact that he'd studied French literature at university. Someone trotted out the "standard defence": "Ah yes, but it taught you to think". "Maybe," he replied, "but I wish they'd taught me something useful while they were doing it".

    And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with the "standard defense": if you claim the ultimate value of humanities is the by-product of rigorous thinking then you are tacitly admitting that the subject matter has no intrinsic value. You might as well study chess problems or old episodes of Are You Being Served?

    Now, it is by no means easy to demonstrate that studying literature (or, indeed, history) has any intrinsic value. Does it make you a "better person" (whatever the hell THAT means)? Does it turn callous oafs into caring, sensitive individuals? No, or certainly not often enough to justify its existence - assuming, of course, that the production of caring, sensitive individuals is itself a good thing (and that's not at all obviously true).

    So what are the alternatives? I think there are two.

    The first will cut little ice in today's market-driven world but it at least has the merit of honesty. It runs as follows: "Studying literature (and/or history) helps promote values that I believe in, and if you don't support those values then you can fuck off". I think we could label this "The Kulturkampf Defense".

    The second defence is more pragmatic (ie, consequentialist). It says that a lot of employers actually don't want graduates who've spent three years learning a load of theory concerning their area of business - they'd rather teach that stuff to recruits themselves. In fact, they have to "un-teach" their vocationally-trained recruits, which is annoying and costly. They would rather have people who've proved that they're intelligent and hard-working but who haven't learnt a load of theoretical clap-trap that'll have to be jettisoned before they can become useful employees. Subjects like literature and history fit the bill very nicely - especially as many bright people show a marked inclination to study in those areas. So why not give them what they want and thereby give the employers what they want too? It's win/win.

    Obviously, this doesn't apply to fields such as engineering or accounting. But there are still huge "generalist" areas where this argument remains valid (journalism is a classic case: many newspapers would rather take on lit graduates than people who've studied journalism academically). Of course, this ties you into the idea that education is and ought to be all about giving employers what they want. That's debatable, but it's hard to get away from the claim that it at least forms some part of any education policy.

    I've left out philosophy so far because I think it stands slightly apart from the other humanities. Philosophy offers - or ought to offer, if it's taught correctly - a critique not just of the values of our society but of any given society. In other words, it is consciousness-raising; it helps prevent people from becoming unwitting victims. They might buy into a society's values or stand against them, but either way they do it on their own terms. That probably isn't what any society really wants (despite its self-serving rhetoric) but at this point I invoke the Kulturkampf Defence: if you don't like it you can fuck off.

    But the problem with the Kulturkampf Defence is that I don't have any tank regiments at my disposal.

  5. I think this all calls for a new post. Thanks!