[Humanist] 29.364 losing the humanities

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Fri Oct 9 07:48:13 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 29, No. 364.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Thu, 8 Oct 2015 09:20:32 -0400
        From: Wendell Piez <wapiez at wendellpiez.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 29.354 losing the humanities: not at Tokyo!
        In-Reply-To: <20151006065333.876F06A1E at digitalhumanities.org>

Dear Willard and HUMANIST,

It gratifies me more than I deserve to see the considered opinions of
everyone who has written to this thread -- which is not to exclude
those who have only read and pondered, which itself (I try and remind
myself) is more than I am due. :-)

To Rens Bod I would suggest he puts his finger on it when he takes up
my suggestion that the humanities have no "guarantee of return". He
points to ample evidence that investment in education in the
humanities pays for itself many times over. I believe it. Yet I hold
to the idea that it is in refusing the guarantee -- not in refusing
the return -- that the humanities make themselves distinctive.

Indeed I am very sympathetic to the notion that there is and should be
a humanistic medicine, humanistic law, humanistic engineering -- name
your three hot topics, I dunno, robotics, biotechnology, app
development. This sort of medicine, law, building or business would be
practiced not only for the supposed promises and gains of these
professions, but also in service of advance and development in other
(perhaps not "accountable") ways, perhaps sometimes having to do with
connection and curiosity.

Of course I recognize that this definition of "humanities as
disciplines that make no promises", however serviceable as a
counter-object for thinking, really has little to do with the real
world of humanities disciplines or especially departments, as we
actually find them. There is a gap here, which will be filled by
ideology if it is filled with nothing else; that is, there is a
question of value. As has been pointed out, part of the problem is the
muteness of the humanities in the face of a discourse that has already
prejudiced the question of value, casting it into its own distorted
form -- the form of a uniform and intolerant society, which finds
curiosity and questioning to be threatening, where the books are
balanced (or at least well-cooked), and where every transaction comes
out zero sum.

However the point of the humanities as I understand them (if there can
be a point to something with no guarantee of return) is not to avoid
questions of value or find ways of deferring them, but to pose them
directly and deliberately, in view of the actual world we live in with
its actual history. Of course, given the human propensity for
self-delusion -- to say nothing of our more inevitable limitations as
thinking creatures, such as our way of filling in our gaps in
knowledge with suppositions, then pretending they are not even there
-- this is not an easy task. Not in the least. This is only one reason
why humanities disciplines need the sciences, linguistics, psychology,
logic, philosophy and the arts. We keep each other honest, even when
we can't entirely remedy one another's ignorance. (How many lifetimes
do I get? I sometimes want to know.)

I'm also afraid, however, that Rens is also correct to be skeptical
that any argument, however well made, is likely to resolve the issues
here (and not only the issue of public or government support of
university departments but everything else). These people (the "Them"
as Tim Smithers has it) have already decided there is a pie to be
divided, and are seeing to it that they get their slices. Perhaps some
sort of sustained propaganda campaign would help, or perhaps not. I
keep thinking the attitude problem is more profound. I would like to
shake them and say, not only is there more pie, but that is not the
only tasty thing we can put on the menu, if we only share freely,
there will be more than anyone can ever eat. (And more work for bakers
too, if we want.)

So much for idle fantasy; fortunately Hartmut Krecht offers something
more constructive: "If there is a future for the humanities, it will
probably depend on our capacity to find an over-arching pattern that
will relate the separate fields to each other, interdisciplinarily and
interculturally, so that new practices may be devised that are of
practical value." I can heartily assent to this, even if I persist in
my madness in thinking the humanities should (and on some level must)
be held exempt on some level -- on the deepest level. (But as you will
not fail to point out, so also should the sciences.)

But I do not believe such an over-arching pattern will be one that
presumes to guarantee or even foresee the value it demonstrates. My
own case is exemplary. While my fields of study in school (Classics
and English literature) had confessedly no practical use, my
subsequent career and work has ironically made me qualified to offer
(to paying customers, and among other technology-related services) a
most practical-minded, vocational training in the use, design and
construction of technological "solutions" that didn't exist back then
-- but which are vital to their businesses now. And which, not
entirely incidentally, do have their challenging intellectual aspects
as well. How else should I have prepared for that?

I am also unsure that the humanities will or should find the pattern
in anything specifically or necessarily "digital". Assuming the
impending collapse of civilization can be rescheduled, I am confident
that once current fads and fashions have made way for whatever comes
next, digital technologies will persist as a platform and instrument
for (good and bad) humanistic scholarship, however it is practiced
(and by whomever) in years and decades to come. "DH", I very much hope
and expect, will be the phenomenon of a moment, just as "Humanities
Computing" was. The term will survive on some labs, centers, curricula
and associations; but it will become increasingly hollow, part of the
background, yesterday's thing. But the digital will take care of its
own: in contrast to "DH", digital humanities (even fairly narrowly
conceived) won't slow any more than humanities computing did. I see
what we now call "digital" becoming more and more bound up in what we
used to call "literate" -- which isn't, or isn't only, digital.

Maybe there is a hint of a solution in Hartmut's citation of "Chinese
Humanities" as something purportedly on the rise in China. In their
own various histories, perhaps the most dismaying if perennial aspect
of all our disciplines has been the way they have been used as
occasions and masks for motives of nationalism and empire, in their
more divisive, exploitative forms. (What are the humanities for, if
they don't prove how great we are?) Surely the time has come when that
has to stop. Maybe the core of the humanities must be in the idea that
these are the disciplines in which we study -- and learn to value and
appreciate -- not ourselves, but each other. (Know yourself, yes, but
to know yourself, you must love someone or something else. This
implies, among other things, the Chinese Humanities Institute should
be active in outreach and exchange activities.) What could be more
practical than that? Could such an inchoate impulse be fashioned into
something more coherent? Something not (or not only) digital but
transnational and global?

Warm regards,

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