The New Humanities?

David Ferris University of Colorado, Boulder
Abstract: In this essay, I examine the future state of the humanities, as has been done by others many times in the past, but in the context of the current positioning of the university and the future world to come as they pivot toward a quantifiable and technological future that conforms to STEM models. I consider the notion that the humanities may be in conflict with the university itself, as the only consideration for disciplinary validity is relevance to an unknowable future while those areas associated with the past are given little credibility. I also examine questions raised about the humanities almost fifty years ago, which reflect the same questions today, and review prior attempts at solutions, such as interdisciplinary courses that created constrictions and conflicts with parent departments. Rather than repeating these solutions and recreating impasses, I propose as a possible remedy the refocusing of humanities master degree programs along the lines of those in the United Kingdom.

These remarks are an attempt to understand and recognize some of the forces that have produced the current situation of the humanities.

These remarks are an attempt to understand and recognize some of the forces that have produced the current situation of the humanities, specifically why any discussion of the humanities is confronted with the task of displacing its significance from its present state and into the protective fold of an imagined future. Why the contemporary discussion of the humanities has taken this form at this point in the history of the university is a question central to these remarks. Equally central is the attempt (since this is one of the questions proposed by rubric under which these Humanities Futures seminars are conceived) to determine what paradigm this development adheres to and, of course, whether the Kuhnian paradigm should be considered as itself an historical understanding rather than an understanding of historical change. I will argue that the humanities have been shifted toward a paradigm that is not of their own making and therefore they have not so much undergone an internal paradigmatic change but are facing something that looks like a Hobsonian choice: the choice that demands that the humanities conform to the scientific and technological (read STEM) models on which decisions about the significance of intellectual work in the university and, indeed, the future of the university are now increasingly made. The result of this change in the university is that the humanities are now faced with the risk of entering into a conflict with the university itself, and perhaps never more so than when the humanities invoke the past and their own history within the university as their rationale for survival. (This observation is not a judgment about the importance of the past in the humanities but rather a strategic observation, given the nature of this juncture for the humanities.) Our adoption of this recourse to the future as the axiomatic point of focus and as the decisive place where our significance is to be decided is a recognition of this conflict, but it is also an acquiescence to the increasingly uncritical methodologies of inquiry (and their technological means of delivery) that now animate discussions of the future of the university and have become the quantifiable measure on which knowledge as something that must produce advancement now rests. To put this situation historically, what we face is one consequence of the Enlightenment project in which our disciplines or faculties were first forged.

Which disciplines and fields are best for the best possible world to come?

It is this project that the modern university has brought to its logical conclusion by condensing the Enlightenment imperative toward progress into one essential guiding question: which disciplines and fields are best for the best possible world to come? When the answer demands demonstrable outcomes, then those disciplines that have been shaped from the beginning according to such outcomes will be considered essential, and what else remains runs the risk of becoming symbolic.

The Future? Demands of the Measurable Outcome? Or, There Are Symbols, but Not for Us?

The form in which we consider the future of the humanities is the subject of this essay. I emphasize this aspect because it seems to me that it provides the best entry into the questions that now beset the different fields of the humanities. Above all, the prospect of the transformation of these according to a model of innovation borders on an entrepreneurial/business model. (Professional master degrees are now the template that any new master degree in the humanities must now conform to at my own institution.) We are faced with the task of reinvigorating what we do in order to claim a significant place within the increasingly constrictive form of a modern university that has embraced technological means as an end in itself rather than retain both means and method as objects of inquiry. To simply sense a critique of the technological in these words would be to misconstrue my point. What is intended is a recognition of the technological in its limits, which means, nowadays, a recognition of the university in its limits. That will sound a little too abstract to most deans, so I will try to make that intention more concrete in what follows. For now, I mention it in order to frame this essay about the future as it figures in the phrase "the future of the humanities" and how, in that phrase, we are compelled to adopt the dominant rhetoric of the contemporary university: the imperative to affirm the future as the time that will resolve the conditions, both good and bad, of the present so that we may supersede the past and its supposedly limiting influence on our development. It is this imperative that drives the technological to the forefront of how the university now rationalizes the core of its existence.

Present hope rather than future hope is, I think, something more like what is needed.

Here, the Enlightenment from which the modern university emerged has now been constricted to a temporal narrative in which the past no longer has authority with respect to the future. This narrative has built into it the production of an amnesia about the past; this is why no assertion of the past as a crucial object to study will have relevance in a present that is resolutely tied to the future as its only justifiable significance. Once the future has been given the authority to shape the present, once it has become the touchstone of survival, then we may only be left a pessimistic version of that infamous saying by Kafka: there is hope but not for us. But we should not take this as pessimistic or lying down like Gregor Samsa lest we wish to remain so. We should remember that Kafka was merely commenting on our fate if we turn to the future as the always to hand solution to a present dilemma. Present hope rather than future hope is, I think, something more like what is needed.

A Matter of Rubrics: Does the Paradigm Shift or Does It Only Constrict?

The rubric for these seminars is poised between, on the one hand, uncovering distinctive and new ways in which the humanities can be configured for the future, and on the other, posing questions about the long-term effects of such innovations on the history of the humanities, their traditions, and their methods of critical inquiry. Here there is a conflict and the question is whether this conflict is the sign of a shift that has already occurred but has not yet taken institutional form. One assumption made by our rubric is that, if a paradigm shift has occurred, it has taken place within the humanities and their contemporary history. It is this assumption I would like to confront by posing the question of whether the only paradigm that has changed is that of the university itself and that the presence of different methodologies within the humanities—or what we might prefer to call "approaches"—is the form in which we have registered this change by institutionalizing historical, social, political, and theoretical questions into circumscribed fields of study in order to stand against how the university has aligned its reason for existence according to a demonstrable and quantifiable future. Thus, I wish to add the following question to our discussion, and with more emphasis than is given in the rubric: the question of the changed significance and organization of the university in recent decades, changes whose origin and complexity can be minimized by accepting the narrative of economic challenges in the sheen of a future that takes the form of rationalizing humanities disciplines into ersatz communities of subjects, that is, the grouping of more and more fields of study within the arts and humanities into internal schools whose future offers the promise that such new intellectual communities preserve the humanities in the face of preceding, instrumental budgetary decisions. I mention this development in order to highlight not only the institutional grounds on which academic existence is already being shaped, but also to demarcate clearly that the contemporary decision about the significance of the humanities now rests upon a future, upon what we are to become rather than what we are or have been. The rhetoric that accompanies the phrase "the future of the humanities" is the form in which what was formerly called the crisis of the humanities has taken refuge without witnessing the nature of that crisis and its rhetoric.

The Present Crisis: Fictions of the Real?

If we ask when this change occurred, it is tempting to answer quickly that it is a phenomenon of the centrifugal movement of the humanities in recent decades. It would be a mistake (and indeed go against what we in the humanities do best) to accept this claim without at least some historical perspective. In 1969, there appeared a special issue of the journal Daedalus which published a collection of essays developed after a conference held in what is now a very overdetermined date, May 1968. The title of the conference and the journal special issue is "The Future of Humanities." The author of the introduction to this issue summarizes four themes from the discussions, which are here cited briefly:

Humanities as practiced today are by their nature valid.

The humanities already have found the means for making effective decisions and commitments in today’s world.

A change in the approach and content of scholarship and teaching is essential.

The crisis is imminent.

This summary emphasizes an internal disconnectedness even at a time when the institutional existence of the humanities was taken for granted. How a body of knowledge can be by its nature valid and still face an imminent crisis already betrays a fault line which may be a condition of our modern humanities. The fact that this was already discerned almost fifty years ago underscores just how conflicted a debate about the future of humanities will be, and some might add, should be. But there is another observation to make here. Is this a productive or a paralyzing conflict? How is that that 1969 account of the situation of the humanities already defines, all amnesia apart, the situation we now find ourselves in and does so before the unprecedented growth of higher education and the university system in the 1970s?

The reference points that frame these four observations already confine any debate to the present and the future, and so without recognition of a past. The first two emphasize "today" and express satisfaction with the way things are: the humanities have validity in the present and they are relevant to today’s world, although it is not clear if the decisions are themselves effective or whether the humanities are good at putting decisions into effect. As if aware of this uncertainty in the present, the last two observations inject into this halcyon present (undisturbed by validity) the necessity of change, and then all stakes are raised by introducing the spectre of a crisis as the inducement to implement such change. This is not to say that our sense of crisis is not real, rather it is to note the pervasiveness of the Schmittian paradigm: crisis is unquestioningly adopted to precipitate change by means of asserting an impasse that cannot be overcome except by evoking a state of emergency that has now become the normative state.

How a body of knowledge can be by its nature valid and still face an imminent crisis already betrays a fault line which may be a condition of our modern humanities.

We have lived through both crisis and change in the humanities, so much so that these two aspects might be regarded by many as the future into which the humanities were about to step in 1969 as confidence in that era’s sense of natural validity for the humanities evaporated. To a large extent such validity was replaced by the sense of intellectual adventure that gripped the 1970s and that made the humanities a welcome venue for a multifaceted attention to the whole spectrum of cultural objects as well as their political and geographical underpinnings. I argue here that we are now living the consequences not of that expanded attention (as if it were a force destructive to the humanities), but rather of the failure to translate this explosion of critical thought into structured programs of study. Instead, we produced an unproductive and prolonged internal conflict between one approach or another, a conflict that did not admit either common cause but merely created a conflictual environment for emerging fields of study which felt compelled to vie for the disciplinary rights and autonomy to protect the kind of questions and issues that could not be asked by the parent fields from which they sought to separate themselves. The administrative compromise to this situation has been to adopt a hierarchy of significance: some fields of study will have departmental status, some will be programs, and, at the weakest level, some will be merely groupings of faculty pursuing intellectual questions in a context whose interdisciplinarity cannot be absorbed into the preexisting structures for teaching, research, and professional evaluation. This compromise has simply compounded the questions we face and which have been evaded until the appearance of a situation or crisis or state of emergency that forces change if a future is to be maintained—in the form of a crisis from which the repetition of the conditions of that crisis are concealed.

What should not be missed in the preceding paragraph is that the adoption of such a hierarchy is a judgment about the contingency of change in the humanities as well as the containment of an already emergent humanities that neither relies on natural validity nor turns to a progressive model in order to assert the significance of the humanities. Here, it should be noted that such deficiencies (such as a loss of natural validity) were not created by the critical development of the humanities and their expansion but by the institutional paradigm that equated disciplines with natural fields of study. The conflation of national identity and discipline is the most obvious example of this.

The establishment of Comparative Literature in the United States in the 1950s was already a sign of the beginning of the movement away from the institutional paradigm within which the humanities and its primary disciplines were formed. However, as I have argued elsewhere (see "Indiscipline"), the field of Comparative Literature was confronted with a model of significance for the humanities that demanded definition according to geographical and political terms, a limitation that made Comparative Literature ripe for the critical and theoretical growth it fostered in the 1970s and 1980s before the disciplinary imperative completed its circle and a lack of identity became its disciplinary claim. At the same time, the seductive lure of a continuing state of crisis about its identity became its status quo and its means of survival as Comparative Literature sought security and a new identity by adopting, like some long-lost relative of the west, the most expansive themes of our critical age: for example, multiculturalism and globalization translated by the west for its consumption. This exercise undertaken by the American Comparative Literature Association recurs on average every ten years, which seems to be the half‐life of each adopted topic as well as of the contemporary ability to discipline Comparative Literature under the aegis of the temporary forms of our modernity.

Our Comparative Impasse: Literature by Any Other Name?

The rhetorical call to action initiated by displacing a loss of present significance into a future that remains undefined or undefinable and thus protects hope for us as well as from us, or which invests in new ways of doing the humanities, each of these risks resembling an increasingly expansive ars combinatoria. It is as if the humanities could sustain its significance indefinitely by proposing new relations between its disciplines or by taking up cultural content that had hitherto been ignored or considered without significance. In many ways, we would like to see the validity of our modern humanities as embodying the principle of such expansiveness. Yet, this tactic comes with several dangers: first, internal dissension that pits, to use a recurring example, canonists against non-canonists (a struggle that can have no satisfactory resolution); second, it invites the criticism that the humanities are too diffuse, have little sense of disciplines or centers of knowledge, or worse, have confused the pursuit of novelty with sustainable relevance.

There is an illegitimacy to each of these dangers and outcomes, and it is as deeply conservative as it is dialectical. Each sets the stage for an impasse that can only be repeated, and I wonder if our present displacement into a future or futures, while a means of managing such an impasse, does not also set the scene for its return, but with a further weakening of the place of humanities in the future university. While merely surviving might be a satisfactory solace for such weakening, we may wonder at the same time if we have not become a participant in some kind of survival exercise within the university as it confronts the consequences of its attempt to remain relevant to the world it occupies and now obeys less and less critically.

Reconceiving the Future

Given this context, the question I want to pose as a way of bringing the foregoing observations to their conclusion and as a way of addressing the intent in the rubric that guides these seminars on the future of the humanities is the following: is the moment when we are faced with the question of our future the moment in which we should reconceive humanistic inquiry by concentrating on the discovery of new fields and areas for humanistic inquiry, or is it the moment in which the delivery of humanistic inquiry should be reconceived? To put this another way, is it not time that we put aside the hierarchical competition into which new areas of study are forced to participate? Underlying each of these two preceding questions is the conviction that no single field can or should reanimate the humanities (and have we not seen the error of this desire in the 1980s and 1990s as one approach seemed to offer salvation, only to cede its place to yet another approach?).

Is it not time that we put aside the hierarchical competition into which new areas of study are forced to participate?…Is it not time to reorganize how we present the humanities within the structure of the university?

What I want to touch on here is the confusion of means for ends, and in doing so, direct our attention to how we structure the humanities according to that confusion. In all our questioning and awareness of the conflicts that reconceiving our future brings, there is no recognition that the organization of the humanities institutionally (and their objects of study) are the locus of a profound alienation between, on the one hand, institutional demands, the internal requirements of disciplines that sustain those demands, and, on other hand, the development of means of inquiry that can only occupy the edges of the degree/discipline structures we have not stopped inheriting. I am arguing here for a way of validating a landscape that, in the case of humanities, has undergone many changes in the past fifty years but has not found a way (and has tried surprisingly infrequently and largely in peripheral ways, such as Humanities Centers) to organize these changes into programs of study that are not put into conflict with parent disciplines (and are thus not made to relive the alienation and sense of crisis that initiated theses changes in the first place). Let me put the question this way: is it not time to reorganize how we present the humanities within the structure of the university? This question comes from a suspicion that, nowadays, offering a degree with a single word or couple-of-words title no longer embodies any natural validity from the past and, above all, such a way of defining what we do is no longer replicated in the school systems that provide students to the university. Language arts for literary study, for example? Is a name like "English" too vague and already alienated from the understanding of literature and culture that animates the present (and which we have also pursued but without making it more than a contingent part of our degree programs, that is, contingent in the sense that a course on what might be called an "innovative" topic is an accessory to the core of a discipline rather than the sign that a profound change has already taken place)? Is it not time to catch up with the consequences of our present situation rather than add more examples that repeat what has already happened and thereby produce a stasis that threatens our claim to a significance different, and crucially so, to the STEM world that the university has lurched toward as the answer to the instrumentality it created when it accepted a way of doing things as a form of thought with the emphasis on form as the justification?

A Modest Proposal?

I am hesitant to prescribe a solution, since I recognize that our future is a matter of a comprehensive taking stock of the contemporary situation of the humanities. But what I would outline is the necessity of changing how we conceive of the degrees we offer, since they are the point at which we can address the fault line that affects and clouds our future. To introduce this proposal, I want to first point to a difference between how the master of arts degree is conceived in the UK and how it is conceived in the United States. In the United States, we have degree programs that largely follow our undergraduate programs, except at a higher level. In the UK, the MA program is a defined subject area; for example, in the UK one might pursue an MA in the politics and aesthetics of postcolonial literature. From this, a first proposal emerges: would our graduate programs have greater vibrancy and appeal if they were not simply an MA in "{insert any discipline’s name}" but defined themselves from the outset with respect to an identifiable subject that addresses issues within the humanities? From this, a second proposal: would a broader model reinvigorate our undergraduate degrees as each discipline identifies fields and concentrations that are organized according to a coherent body of content that also recognizes the interdisciplinary nature of so much contemporary study in the humanities? From that starting point, can we conceive of programs of study within the already existing degree/discipline structures that concentrate a broad range of ways of understanding, geographical, historical, and intellectual, rather than rely on a natural/national validity as the still final arbiter of what the humanistic inquiry means today? An irony of developing along such lines is, of course, that some of the key disciplines in the sciences and social sciences have already done so as they reorganize themselves internally—the examples of the biological sciences, engineering, and anthropology are a case in point. Each has fostered and adopted subdisciplines without losing the overarching general term. If this were acceptable, we already have the future in our hands, and it is not a matter of another paradigm that changes the content of our disciplines, but the re-forming of what we already possess, socially and historically and critically and politically, into concentrations worthy of being degree programs that give critical access to our future rather than inventions to practice, to do, and to be distracted by until they too need another rhetoric of crisis.

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