Bonfire of the Humanities

A legendary editor at Harvard University Press asks, What good are books?

Over the past four years, I have warned humanities scholars and publishers to prepare for a future when publishers, like myself, would go from publishing too many books to too few. What good are books? What are publications for?

My motive in these questions is my immoderate love of books, and if this be idolatry, I am guilty. Collectively we may stand—as Marshall McLuhan suggested years ago—at an exit from the time when the book, with its writing, its publication, and its reception, was central to human flourishing. We owe it to ourselves, then, to figure out what it was we, as members of the human species, most valued about the book, so we can try to preserve it.

The humanities must now take steps to preserve and protect the independence of their activities, such as the writing of books and articles, before the market becomes our prison and the value of the book becomes undermined. It was not always so. John Milton once wrote that good books are "the precious lifeblood of a master spirit." Today the humanist should look back to such expressions of illuminated belief. The task is to engage in constant re-examination.

If humanists do not keep firmly in mind what they are about, no one else will. Humanists study books and artifacts in order to find traces of our common humanity. I argue that there is a causal connection between the corporatist demand for increased productivity and the draining from all publications of any significance other than as a number. The humanities are in a crisis now because many of the presuppositions about what counts are absolutely inimical to the humanities. When books cease being complex media and become objects to quantify, then it follows that all the media that the humanities study lose value.

Money has restructured the U.S. academy in its own image, and money is a blunt instrument. Until World War II, almost all higher-education institutions were founded in the name of religion. When some god was the ultimate framework for the academy, the sky was the limit for the sorts of work that could happen in the academy, because all gods are beyond definition. I don't mean to ignore the fact that religion has often hobbled and even shackled free inquiry in the past. But when the dollar becomes the ultimate term, the sky closes in. The assumption that markets allocate resources efficiently is false, writes Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz; "what they really do is to generate the pressures that increase productivity."

How, then, to survive? Blaming administrators may be an error. Yet I think that humanists can better their lot, and they must do it or they will lose out. There is a sense that after 9-11 the administrators of universities have no patience for professors of the humanities. A colleague asked the former president of an Ivy League university if he saw humanists playing a key role in the university at the present critical moment, and the former chief executive indicated that he expected nothing from the humanities: "They are a lost cause." This attitude is not uncommon among senior administrators who see the need to rededicate the university to the pursuit of scientific research and money.

The problem here, which administrators see as inevitable, is an efficient concentration on productivity without concern for reception. The balance between these two elements—production and reception—is gone. We need to restore the symmetry between them. Among academics the problem arises when tenure is based—inherently the most serious academic professional goal—on the quantity of publications, publications few read. Furthermore, as Markus Meister, the Harvard molecular biologist, observes, "It's a sad thing to say, but we have in a way outsourced the process of evaluating our colleagues to . . . elite journals." Meister, the distinguished scientist, is pointing to a fundamental humanist obligation, the Kantian obligation to make judgments. To judge or not to judge: That is the question. Thinking about judgment was once central and widespread but it became less well-known during the 20th century, as corporatist thinking emerged and triumphed in politics, business, and the academy.

Product is all that counts, not the reception, not the human use. This is production for its own sake and precious little else. If we stay this course, we can achieve what Angus Fletcher calls not economies of scale, but "bankruptcies of scale." Then is it too late to change the system? A creative despondency almost prevails. Yet we can get a perspective on our situation, even though the academy and the free use of intelligence are too often locked, not arm in arm, but in mortal combat. There's something about an institution that loves walls. There is in fact a compartmentalizing collusion operating between a managerial system that doesn't want to be bothered with the details of innovation or content, and those within the departments at universities who are the enemies of innovation. This is not a synergy encouraging life, but rather a cynicism, if only what has been called "cynical reason."

Do I exaggerate? Contemporary society pays lip service to the innovator, but really loves the conformist. Hannah Arendt wrote that "society expects from each of its members a certain kind of behavior, imposing innumerable and various rules, all of which tend to 'normalize' its members, to make them behave, to exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement." But even 170 years ago, de Tocqueville noted how uncritical many Americans can be when it comes to their own behavior.

The problem is that issues never get broached because they have been ruled out-of-bounds. This is, no doubt, a perennial problem in the academic world, which is why people in Europe have had low expectations for innovation from universities. But—as my friends in China remind me—the U.S. is a young country and its scholarly traditions are not well rooted yet. The way our society is structured, the university is the main home for the intellect, and humanism is the chief defender of its obligation to judge, in a Kantian sense.

The abandonment of critical inquiry and the renunciation of bold hopes for innovation are presented as themselves the very cutting edge of innovation. This is why the present moment in scholarship is hard to understand for what it is. But if we attend to details, we can see how this boldness justifies abandoning what I would call the Hippocratic Oath for humanists, which demands that scholars not pass by ideas or evidence that contradict their theories but face them, just as a doctor can leave no sick person untreated. With such goals and aspirations, the humanist will reclaim the university from its mere administrators, who dictate an efficient conformity.

The modern university takes the present organization of knowledge into separate disciplines, all those gated communities, as inevitable and natural as the categories of niche marketing. The blinkered professional who has become the norm is not an intellectual who reads promiscuously in the hope he or she might come upon a book that will change his or her life. There is something wrong about telling the young to curb their enthusiasms, for these are the signs of life in every field. There is an absolute symmetry between what the book is in production and what it is in reception—a gathering—and it is this symmetry that makes for the special beauty of the book. If the life of a scholar is a calling, a vocation, it is one that is analogous to the calling a book makes to us to read it and judge it. A book is not, nor ever will be, a dump. The book emerges from silence, not from cacophony. The book features the highest signal-to-noise ratio possible of any means of communication.

The message emerging dares us to look at new things and develop new theories. Humanists have to counter the iconoclastic attitude about books and art that has come to dominate the humanities. We have to embrace art once again and show how the interaction of readers, viewers, and listeners can precipitate the sorts of experiences that allow our souls to spring forth into momentary glory. Experience is for the humanist what experiments are for the scientist, the key events we seek to explore.

If the humanities are about judgment, they are about that judgment that something is new in my interaction with some artistic objects. When we are ready to explain ourselves and when we are ready again to encounter the artwork—that is, when we set our eyes once again upon the prize of the aesthetic experience—we will find students and we will find the support we so desperately need to do our work.


Lindsay Waters is executive editor of the humanities at Harvard University Press. This essay is adapted from his recent book,Enemies of Promise (Prickly Paradigm Press).

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