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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Via The Valve, Wilfred McClay responds to Stanley Fish's slacker "defense" of the humanities in Wilson Quarterly.

The humanities, rightly pursued and rightly ordered, can do things, and teach things, and preserve things, and illuminate things, which can be accomplished in no other way. It is the humanities that instruct us in the range and depth of human possibility, including our immense capacity for both goodness and depravity. It is the humanities that nourish and sustain our shared memories, and connect us with our civilization’s past and with those who have come before us. It is the humanities that teach us how to ask what the good life is for us humans, and guide us in the search for civic ideals and institutions that will make the good life ­possible.

The humanities are imprecise by their very nature. But that does not mean they are a form of intellectual ­finger-­painting. The knowledge they convey is not a rough, preliminary substitute for what psychology, chemistry, molecular biology, and physics will eventually resolve with greater finality. They are an accurate reflection of the subject they treat, the most accurate possible. In the long run, we cannot do without ­them.

But they are not indestructible, and will not be sustainable without active attention from us. The recovery and repair of the ­humanities—and the restoration of the kind of insight they ­provide—is an enormous task. Its urgency is only increasing as we move closer to the technologies of a posthuman future, a strange, ­half-­lit frontier in which bioengineering and pharmacology may combine to make all the fearsome transgressions of the past into the iron cages of the future, and leave the human image permanently ­altered.

The mere fact that there are so many people whose livelihood depends on the humanities, and that the humanities have a certain lingering cultural capital associated with them, and a resultant snob appeal, does not mean that they are necessarily capable of exercising any real cultural authority. This is where the second sense of burden comes ­in—­the humanities as reclamation task. The humanities cannot be saved by massive increases in funding. But they can be saved by men and women who believe in ­them.
So far so good—but it wouldn't be an article about the humanities or literature if literary theorists didn't get smacked in the face along the way.
It utterly violates the spirit of literature, and robs it of its value, to reduce it to something else. Too often, there seems to be a presumption among scholars that the only interest in Dickens or Proust or Conrad derives from the extent to which they can be read to confirm the abstract propositions of Marx, Freud, Fanon, and the ­like—or Smith and Hayek and Rand, for that ­matter—and promote the right preordained political attitudes, or lend support to the identity politics du jour. Strange, that an era so pleased with its superficially freewheeling and antinomian qualities is actually so distrustful of the literary imagination, so intent upon making its productions conform to predetermined criteria.
Isn't it time somebody wrote one of these articles about the dangers of reducing literary theory to "something else" through the same, endlessly recurring, prefabricated critique playing paean to the fantasy of an ahistorical and absolutely autonomous aesthetic realm? I think I might like to see an article do that.