Oh, the Humanities!

BY AARON BARLOW

When I first heard the term “Digital Humanities” a decade ago, it seemed like something brewed up for use by those who want to poison the humanities—still does. It appeared to be nothing more than something developed by those with a little knowledge of C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, with its “intellectuals as natural luddites,” who took away from it the idea that they could take advantage of what seems, sometimes, the befuddled thought of those in the humanities, making it more “scientific” and, in the meantime, securing their own careers. Snow writes, “If we forget the scientific culture, then the rest of western intellectuals have never tried, wanted, or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it. Intellectuals, in particular literary intellectuals, are natural Luddites” (23). There have been thousands of careerists in the humanities for whom reading this was an ‘ah ha’ moment, a realization that careers could be made through twisting the humanities into something conforming to the precepts of the other culture, through belittling half of intellectual pursuit.

To me, DH is the spiritual child of “Theory,” the movement of the 1980s that also tried to make the humanities seem “scientific.” In both instances, those pushing the movement accepted the idea that science and technology are the waves and ways of the future and that humanities are an anachronism—unless pulled into the scientific realm either by complexity or by numbers.

Now, don’t get me wrong: There’s nothing wrong with Theory or with DH as tools for making us better students of the humanities. I love studying theories of literature today and going back to John Crowe Ransom and before—and a great deal of my own work is often collected under the DH banner. What I don’t see is promoting these as legitimate bases for careerist movements and competition with traditional humanities study. Both movements have contributed—and continue to contribute—to the debasement of the legitimate offerings of the humanities to both academia and the broader culture.

And that makes me furious.

On Facebook, Slate’s David Auerbach posted “A Note on the Betrayal of the Humanities.” In it, he writes:

The betrayal of the humanities, which has wiped it out as a substantive influential force in our culture, is as follows: as the world grew smaller in the 20th century and foreign traditions became far more accessible, the humanities chose to contract rather than expand its horizons. Rather than extend and refine existing techniques in the service of new and foreign works across cultures, they chose instead to turn inward and launch a lazy and arrogant critique of their own history. So instead of enlightening readings of new work, they erected a clumsy edifice of contrived theory and disposable and transient structures of rhetoric.

Auerbach is writing to a point different from mine, but his depiction resonates with my own thought—though I would add that the edifice he mentions is now buttressed by a slavish belief in the efficacy of numbers as the primary tool in the quest for understanding.

Let me rehash what should be obvious: the humanities study people and not things, the soul and not the body—all the aspects of being that cannot be enumerated. The tools of the sciences often prove useful in the humanities—we use them daily. Those of the humanities, on the other hand, though not easily quantifiable either in construction or output, are also quotidian and necessary devices for the sciences. The subjects of the humanities cannot be dismissed as ultimately unknowable black boxes; they make possible the communication, among other things, that undergirds even scientific inquiry. When we denigrate their study, we weaken all study and sow seeds of confusion.

5 thoughts on “Oh, the Humanities!

  1. It is easy to forget one of the humanities–not English or other languages; not philosophy; not that hybrid, history; and so on–but law. Of course one problem, at least in the United States, is the reputation of lawyers. Then again, law in the United States is more like learning the business of roofing and siding. In other countries, the study of law is more obviously part of the humanities. It is, after all, one of the interpretive disciplines. So, it is odd (or maybe not since this war criminal won the Nobel Peace Prize) that the lawyer B. Obama would disparage art history.

  2. I see the same thing happening in the arts as well. I presented a new piece of music recently where the notes were chosen based on the statistics of salmon going through a fish ladder in Idaho. It was very strange, but I could see that the composer was looking for meaning through numbers and some obscure but politically-correct sense of ecology. On the other hand there have been some fascinating analyses of much older music based on the “golden mean”–finding that the climax of a great piece of music often lands at a certain point of time in the score. I really appreciate the idea in this essay that “the tools of the sciences often prove useful” in the arts, and at the same time that “a slavish belief in the efficacy of numbers as the primary tool in the quest for understanding” belittles the arts. Thank you for this balance!

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