DECEMBER 21, 2012
Julia Reinhard Lupton
Towards Cultural Policy
IN HIS NEW BOOK Blow Up the Humanities, Toby Miller divides the humanities into two camps. Humanities One lionizes books, is dominated by the disciplines of literature and history, pushes values and disdains trade, belongs primarily to “fancy private schools,” and organizes instruction around the charisma of the professor, who responds to the “ethical incompleteness” of his or her students by modeling good taste through ingenious interpretations. When Humanities One professors hear the word “commodity,” they reach for their fountain pens. Humanities Two, on the other hand, centers its energies on film, television, and media; courts relevance and employability; sets up shop in “everyday state schools,” community colleges, and for-profit institutions; and prefers the economic sugar high of rapid enskillment to the wine-and-cheese durée of self-cultivation.
Miller, a Distinguished Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at UC Riverside, prefers the populist front of Humanities Two to the head-in-sand elitism of Humanities One. His real goal, however, is to promote a Humanities Three, dedicated to studying the “cross-pollinating world” of the creative industries, including news, entertainment, and sports. By coupling intellectual seriousness with pragmatic engagement, Miller aims to merge the two humanities in a resilient new hybrid, a curricular Prius whose data engine is boosted by a steady hermeneutic feed. This new hybrid Humanities will “reflect the multimedia future of our society and economy and the intertwined cultures of our population,” providing both new tools for citizenship and some hope of meaningful employment for next-generation college students. Blow Up the Humanities persuasively argues that humanists should tip their research and teaching away from the cultural heritage of the past and towards the products, platforms and infrastructure of contemporary creative industries, so that both students and the institutions that teach them can thrive.
Miller has already demonstrated how this work can be done in his many previous books; please read his funny and illuminating chapters on the weather channel and food programming in Cultural Citizenship (2006) or his rousing account of the international body industry in SportSex (2002). He has also written extensively on how cultural policy, written by and for academics, business leaders, foundation presidents, and government officials, helps shape public debate about art and information in Australia, Latin America, and Europe, but flails and fumbles in the United States’ market-driven civil society. Policy-blind and sociology-shy humanists may know how to analyze fictional texts, but, Miller tells us in Blow Up, “they are typically ignorant of where those texts physically come from or end up and what happens to them in between.” A policy-based approach, on the other hand, takes into account numbers and trends in order to make larger recommendations to agencies in charge of learning benchmarks and income flows. Cultural policy requires its practitioners to navigate the polluted riptides of capital, rather than simply “withdrawing to cloisters/enclaves of dead white men and living people of color.” Buoyant with data and armored with action points, Blow Up the Humanities is a giant white paper aimed at the cubbyholes of department chairs, would-be graduate students, humanities deans, and anyone else worried about what’s next for English and History majors.
I agree with Miller’s insistence that English professors like me need to confront culture as “an object and agent of use,” and that we should recraft our teaching and scholarship as opportunities to understand and engage communicative capitalism rather than either celebrate or ignore it. But Blow Up the Humanities would be a stronger book, in my view, if the final chapter, in which Miller actually begins to lay out his vision for Humanities Three, came earlier and lasted longer. This would mean more detail about the new humanities, and perhaps less vitriol expended on the old. Miller accuses traditional humanists of perpetuating a culture of “martial masculinity,” but there is something both martial and masculine in Miller’s hyperventilating prose and ugly, angry neologisms (“bourgeois yanqui media,” “autotelic […] cognitarians,” “collegecrats”). In other words, I’d like to see less about “blowing up” and more about integration and rebuilding.
As a Shakespeare scholar, my training and commitments fall squarely (and I mean squarely) within Humanities One. Yet as a design writer I have been increasingly venturing into the territory of Humanities Two, with an eye to building something like what Miller calls Humanities Three. My undergraduate courses on “Design Writing” and “Marketing Fictions” explore the ways in which brands tell stories, tap archetypes, and stage performances in order to add value to bleak commodities like coffee and caulk. My team teacher, Jerome Christensen, is a scholar of Romantic poetry (unquestionably property of Humanities One) and Hollywood cinema and corporate identity (the usual province of Humanities Two). We cross-cut between the lyric symbol and the classic logo, and between the “well-rounded” Shakespearean character and the iconic brand. (Falstaff = Coke. Tintern Abbey = Niketown.) In their final projects for our course, students can either explore the contradictions in a mainstream retail fantasy or look at the edgy, innovative design work being done by DIY craftivists. These courses do require that students come with some foundation in literary study and cultural knowledge; when I pitch the same material each year as a guest lecturer to MBA students, words like “myth,” “metaphor,” and “Bauhaus,” which are generally familiar to my students in English draw blank stares from middle management working people more accustomed to the discourse of accounting than aesthetics. Would a literary education give them a sharper purchase on their world?
I share Toby Miller’s conviction that humanistic approaches to media can make students into more critical consumers while also increasing their employment range. Deep exposure to both traditional humanities and the sociology of knowledge might lead some of them to become citizen-activists and policy-advocates working for more equitable access to better information, and to the creation of a culture worth the name. With those goals in mind, my own vision of Humanities Three would continue to reserve a solid sector of the curriculum for literature, philosophy, history, and languages. Training in these fields allows students to tune into the dramas that continue to rock our world, whether as foundational phases (secularization), missed opportunities (primitive communism), or broken promises (liberty/fraternity/equality). The vast and bumpy record composed of the questions raised by human cohabitation and the startling, stumbling solutions that different communities have crafted in response to them belong not to the managerial classes cultivated by “fancy universities” but to citizens of the world. Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to drink it in a Big Gulp cup.
To begin with, I like the title. Coming up in Berkeley in the 1980s, we often “blew up” first and asked questions later. Anything had to be better than the status quo, and admonishments to “stop and think” were suspected of being reactionary and, frankly, not so much fun. There seemed to be so much more to life than what passed for living. But what goes around comes around, or, as the Who put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” As I read Toby Miller’s immensely erudite, intensely stimulating little book, I got a sneaking suspicion that that circularity might haunt Blow Up the Humanities, and present a problem for anything truly explosive actually occurring. Since one of his main topics is the role of popular media, let me turn there for a starting point.
I recently saw the wonderful animated film Wreck-It Ralph. The film takes its name from an arcade game in which a high-rise apartment building in the town of Niceland is regularly besieged by a huge, destructive humanoid named Wreck-It Ralph, who wreaks havoc upon it (kind of a time-lapsed version of urban blight). Fortunately his antithesis is at hand: Fix-It Felix, Jr., a diminutive handy-man with a magic hammer which instantaneously is able to rectify all the damage Ralph does. Hardly seems a problem at all. Ralph splits because he is tired of being a bad guy and craves social acceptance — at the end of the film he is reabsorbed into the community/game, with a big difference, to which we will return.
In Blow Up the Humanities, Miller casts himself as Wreck-It-Ralph to the academy’s Niceland. The question is whether his prescription for the demise of the humanities really will produce the effects he desires, or if at end of the day Niceland isn’t still left standing. Miller sets up his polemical argument quickly and succinctly:
There are two humanities in the United States. One is the humanities of fancy private universities, where the bourgeoisie and their favored subalterns are tutored in finishing school. I am naming this Humanities One, because it is venerable and powerful and tends to determine how the sector is discussed in public. The other is the humanities of everyday state schools, which focus more on job prospects. I am calling this Humanities Two. Humanities One dominates rhetorically. Humanities Two dominates numerically. The distinction between them, which is far from absolute but heuristically and statistically persuasive, places literature, history, and philosophy on one side and communication and media studies on the other. It is a class division in terms of faculty research as well as student background, and it corresponds to the expansion of public higher education and the way that federal funding fetishizes the two humanities away from more prized forms of knowledge. It must end.
According to Miller, Humanities One aims at producing civic and other sorts of leaders by cultivating in them a “martial masculinity” that instantiates a particular brand of self-control: “This tradition of leadership through self-control continued with other thinkers who became sages of the US curriculum, especially Humanities One.” Faced with the erosion of this cultural tradition in the flux of historical time, “[o]nly law and leadership could restore that self-control, or at least mimic it, by channeling hypermasculinity in the interest of social order and imperial expansion. Enter the humanities […] as instruments of governance and commodification.” For Miller, one of the main problems with Humanities One is its reproduction of this privileged class through violence, power, and authority, a process which stifles any pretensions to a truly liberal education, in the best sense of the word.
Turning to Humanities Two, Miller sees a vast underclass, tainted by less lofty purposes and always vulnerable to accusations of mere practicality. In one of the book’s most provocative and depressing chapters, Miller recounts how media and communication studies students are sucked into “creative industries” like marketing, advertising, and videogame production that, under the guise of “creativity” pure and simple, actually channel students’ energy into martial masculinist programs not unlike those found in Humanities One. Indeed, the goal of bringing the Two Cultures of the humanities and sciences together takes place at a bizarre and horrific nexus: “creative industries discourse exemplifies the collapse of the Two Cultures’ binary form, upgrading the humanities’ long-standing contribution to martial masculinity and legitimizing the precarious employment of the cognitariat.” The epitome of the collusion of Humanities One and Humanities Two and their absorption into these pernicious industries may well be the harnessing of the humanities for the production of war games, strategies, devices and weapons under the rubric of “creativity,” serving the needs of the military industrial entertainment complex for both ideological justification and creative development.
So, humanists, name your poison: submit to the elitist, masculine-martial tradition of “Great Works” set up to make “great leaders,” or labor in the venture-capitalist, entrepreneurial hive of “creativity” feeding the coffers of investors in entertainment and other companies and the defense industry. There’s got to be a better way, Miller declares; and sure enough, in his fourth chapter he proposes a “third form” for the humanities:
What kind of curriculum should replace the banal Arnoldian training of Humanities One and supine vocational training of Humanities Two in the creative industries? What can substitute for nostalgic class parthenogenesis and instrumental conservatory instruction? The third form must come from a blend of political economy, textual analysis, ethnography, and environmental studies such that students learn the materiality of how meaning is made, conveyed, and discarded.
In order to understand the world and lead meaningful lives within it — as denizens, citizens, and workers — people must understand how the media function in the global and local context of demographic change because of their importance for the future of employment and knowledge. Just as the “Two Cultures” distinction no longer wraps us in protective wool separating art from science, so a cross-pollinating world disseminates information and entertainment from far afield, providing stories and conflicts that are the stuff of media production (and can incorporate approaches from Humanities One and Two).
In short, according to Miller, our goal as humanists (or post-humanists, if you prefer) is to create an alternate multi-disciplinary space from which and in which to critique the historical genesis of our current state of affairs (which has forced us to choose between two bad options) and to offer another possible way of doing the humanities.
While I am in agreement with much of what Miller says, at this point I want to set forth two criticisms of a book that I generally admire and am happy to have as a much-needed provocation. First, this move away from a bad binary (Humanities One or Humanities Two, humanities or sciences, et cetera) and toward an almost evangelical prescription for the perfect Third Form is as old as C.P. Snow’s 1959 Rede Lecture at Cambridge, “The Two Cultures” (a text to which Miller, fittingly, refers, both in the passage quoted above and at many other points in Blow Up the Humanities). We recall that Snow bemoaned the division of intellectual labor into two camps that had no truck with each other:
The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man’s condition. On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother man, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment.
There were big changes and big problems facing the world in the late 1950s: not only the Cold War and the advent of the space race but also (and this was one of Snow’s main concerns) world hunger. And yet what Snow saw around him at Oxbridge were leaders being molded in much the same ways Miller describes operating today in Humanities One. This was not only an intellectual waste, but also an abrogation of the purpose of education, if education meant the creation of effective leaders with a shot at solving the big problems of the contemporary world. Snow remarked that what he saw before him was a pernicious logjam created by the entrenched humanistic elite:
If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist. It is the traditional culture, to an extent remarkably little diminished by the emergence of the scientific one, which manages the western world.
Snow’s recommendation is as simply put as it was impossible to enact: get the two sides of the faculty talking in a meaningful way, and produce bipartisan graduates who are equally comfortable with the discourses of both factions. We know how that turned out. But this was his ideal synthesis.
Ever since the publication of Snow’s influential lecture, those who have taken up the challenge of thinking through the possible rapprochements of the humanities and sciences, or the humanities and the social sciences, or opposing tendencies within any of them, tend to follow a familiar pattern: after lamenting the logjam, they propose a glorious Third Way. And, lo and behold, that Third Way happens to be the new and improved version of their own particular disciplinary flavor. Take, for instance, the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s 1997 paper ”Social Science and the Quest for a Just Society”:
The move of natural scientists for the social sciences (complexity studies) and the move of scholars in the humanities toward the social sciences (cultural studies) have not been without opposition within the natural sciences and within the humanities. The opposition has in fact been ferocious, but it seems to me that it is been largely a rear guard operation. […] We are in the process of overcoming the two cultures via the social scientization of all knowledge, by the recognition that reality is a constructed reality and the purpose of scientific/philosophical activity is to arrive at usable, plausible interpretations of that reality.” [my emphasis]
We see that, after convincing us of the impasse, Wallerstein has a handy, dare I say hegemonic, solution. Somehow, the social sciences, thus construed, would side-step that flawed tension between the humanities and sciences by incorporating the best aspects of both complexity theory and cultural studies. But note that the new “boss” can only be known and appreciated under the title of “new, improved” social science. The additions to it seem to remain simply that: additives to provide a bit of a kick.
Or consider the natural scientist E. O. Wilson’s reclamation, in his 1999 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, of William Whewell’s term “consilience,” first found in Whewell’s The Philosophy of Inductive Science (1840). Here is Wilson on the impasse:
The greatest enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities. The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos and philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship. The propositions of the original Enlightenment are increasingly favored by objective evidence, especially from the natural sciences.
And here is his grand synthesis:
Given that human action comprises a sense of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences? And how can they fail to benefit from that alliance? It is not enough to say that human action is historical, and that history is an unfolding of unique events. Nothing fundamental separates the course of human history from the course of physical history, whether in the stars or in organic diversity. [my emphasis]
Not surprisingly, Wilson’s insistence that the natural sciences be invited to the social scientists’ table blurs into an argument for awarding the natural sciences the lion’s share of influence and significance.
Given this pattern, it is not surprising that we find a similar streak in Miller, as he explains what his Humanities Three would look like. It just so happens that it would look a lot like cultural studies, his main disciplinary identity:
Changing the current doxa of the humanities in this direction could reach students’ and professors’ knowledge base, increase their means of an intervention and cultural production, talk to charges of social and commercial relevance, challenge the safe houses of interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity, and make the field’s citizenship and social-movement claims more credible. That would mean abandoning history and literature as core nodes of the humanities, turning instead to the study of media and culture — a necessity recognized even by lovers of literary critique who acknowledge that older forms in spring from and into emergent nodes […] At its best, cultural studies blends and blurs textual analysis of the popular with social theory and materialism, focusing on the margins of power rather than reproducing established lines of force and authority. In place of concentrating on canonical works of art, governmental leadership, or quantitative social data, cultural studies devotes time to subcultures, popular media, music, clothing, and sport. By looking at how culture is used and transformed by “ordinary” and “marginal” social groups, cultural studies sees people not simply as consumers but as potential producers of new social values and cultural languages.
Well, if you say so. But here are my problems with where this all seems to lead: note how quickly Miller brushes past the invocation of cultural studies “at its best.” What about at its worst? It is the elision of self-critique that detracts from his case. If he wants us to sign on to this, it would be better (even if it meant spending a chapter or so) to disclose the challenges cultural studies — as it is currently configured and as it might be imagined — faces, and suggest some possible solutions to those challenges. Instead, the recommendation is to discard the old canons for a vast assemblage of stuff loosely held together by a general pedagogical and political project, without any real examples of how this assemblage necessarily produces a qualitatively different result in terms of its disruptive effect.
I imagine this lack of definition is due in no small part to the fact that Miller wishes to remain true to his anti-authoritarian project. He is adamant about that, criticizing even politically correct endeavors to reform the canon:
We must call for a comprehensive redefinition of the U.S. research effort so it downplays useless knowledge and plays up useful knowledge […] The old world of creating martial men/multicultural subjects has to give up its absurd claims to understanding the quintessence of humanity for a faulty anthropology that is scarred by origins in slavery, masculinity, and Romantic philosophy. Great books that cultivate the soul buy into this myth — regardless, I’m sorry, of the race, gender, or politics of their authors. Such a process remains caught in a powerful but flawed dialectic that recenters again and again the authority of the professor and the name of ethically incomplete student subjects.
But here again we have the same problem: not only do we not know why, necessarily, this “flawed dialectic” is endemic to both great books courses and courses in “identity politics,” but also we don’t know how and why cultural studies escapes that trap. Just saying it does not make it so. A change in subject matter or focus does not mean that the same pedagogical structures of authority disappear. (I myself have been in the position of defending cultural studies’ place in the university, so I know the debates around this issue firsthand.)
What one is left wishing for is some glimpse into the classroom of Humanities Three. Don’t tell me what it will do; show me what it looks like. And consider, too, how a “conventional” class in literature or multicultural studies might not adapt precisely that structure and achieve similar goals. In the course of such a description, we might discover that the laudable goals that Miller aims at are not the exclusive purview of cultural studies, and that cultural studies may not necessarily produce the results he says they do.
To his great credit, Toby Miller has performed an exemplary diagnosis of our current impasse, and I am almost ready to hand him the match to light the fuse. But I would like to see a more thoroughgoing exploration of what Humanities Three could actually be. Sure, let’s blow up the humanities, but let’s remember that we need to put something real in their place, something that is continually re-examined and tested, lest we fall back from the aspiration to do real damage to what is most usefully discarded.
The resolution we find at the finish of Wreck-It Ralph is one that rewards Ralph for his good heart (remember, he doesn’t hurt people, he just breaks stuff). The residents of Niceland extend their niceness, finally, even to Ralph, in part because they recognize that their self-interest lies not just in the protection of their property or their power to scapegoat. Their very existence, they realize, is reliant on making sure the real “bosses” — the kids chucking quarter after quarter into the maw of the machine — are getting their money’s worth. The manufactured dialectic of “creative destruction” and emergency repair is part of the game. So if we truly want a revolution: forget Niceland, blow up the arcade! But we then need to think of what we will do with our energy, imagination, and strength, in a serious and sustained way, that does not take anything for granted.
Sideswipes, Shakedowns, and Outbursts
Part Molotov cocktail and part trial balloon, Toby Miller’s Blow Up the Humanities is sensible and annoying in equal measure. Sensible, because it identifies some of the recognizable constraints that compromise humanities scholarship and teaching in the United States today; and annoying, because Miller should know better than to blame the victim and suggest a sectarian solution for what is, in reality, a much bigger problem. It makes nice copy to claim, as Miller does, that the elite humanities serve “money and militarism within a sheath of high versus popular culture.” But the evidence Miller produces for this is circumstantial at best, consisting of the observation that military academies and generals routinely pay lip service to the role of subjects like history and literature in developing the ethical sensibilities of cadets.
It’s true that a certain consensual image of the humanities as contributing to a secular civic religion does indeed endure from the early days of the Republic, for the right as well as the left, and it is this ideal that Miller seeks to “blow up” with his populist invective. However, such tactics of scapegoating by association can only be regarded as unfair and inaccurate: should we criticize pizza chains as warmongers if at some point during their exercises the cadets happened to call out for pizza? If, over the years, the humanities have indeed been asked to serve multiple masters, it is a sign of their general appeal rather than of their ideological weakness, as Miller believes.
In one sense, Miller’s rage is justified. In recent years, the country’s economic downturn, combined with the fiscal retreat and moribund disciplinarity of our institutions, has contributed to the over-supply of would-be humanist academics, converting our nation’s “cognitariat” into a self-pitying precariat (if not quite a proletariat). However, after raging against the overarching system of neoliberalism, late capitalism, and administrative bloat within which the humanities are trapped, Miller’s polemical energy is directed largely against what he calls “Humanities One,” which he accuses of snobbery, obsolescence, and irrelevance. Miller advocates that “Humanities Two” — communication and media studies — be propelled into position as the engagé humanities of the future, anchored in postmodern political economy and the interconnectivity of new media.
This kind of binary opposition — between the humanities as optional frills and the humanities as a skill-set, either demonized out of ressentiment of the upper classes, or celebrated as self-improvement of the underprivileged — smacks of both presentism and anti-intellectualism, maladies to which, alas, even progressive politics is not immune. The scientific equivalent of Miller’s proposal would be to advocate shutting down all fundamental research — from string theory to particle accelerators — as self-indulgent talking shops for the privileged, even while prescribing that all students should engage only in engineering, design, and quality enhancement processes that would track industry and contemporary “technology transfer” only. While I do not object to Miller’s utilitarianism per se, the medicine he proposes is worse than the disease, and comes at the price of compromising the long-term health of the patient. Basic science and technology transfer feed off each other, as administrators of science departments have long acknowledged. By the same token, how can students study the media and culture of today without having a grounded theoretical understanding of how these concepts developed historically, geographically, linguistically, and civilizationally? In his slightly calmer moments, Miller does claim he is proposing a “merger” of Humanities One and Two into a Humanities Three, but he does not adequately address the longer history of the changing role of the university, within which his rhetoric approximates that of the circular firing squad, leaving very few survivors.
In some ways, Miller’s general prescriptions are less interesting than his middle two chapters, on the state of scholarly publishing and the dangerous blandishments of creative industries (the videogame industry in particular). Miller accurately identifies genuine problems in today’s academy; for instance, he notes that the publication of scientific and medical research has become captive to a huge for-profit market (annually worth $16 billion by recent estimates) which produces large quantities in multiple formats at very high cost, even as humanities print monographs are produced in small quantities at low cost by prestigious university presses that emphasize high quality. The tempo of the humanities is, ideally, that of the longue durée, but the logic of today’s fast-paced world has overtaken academia as well. The academic monograph is endangered from the lack of viable publishing models, shrinking readerships, and strapped university library acquisition budgets that are forced to swallow “essential” scientific journals at outrageous prices, squeezing out the purchase of humanities monographs rendered as “optional.” Universities are beginning to band together and insist upon greater (if not always open) access, collaborative acquisition and lending, and the “unbundling” of high-cost databases. Meanwhile, humanities publishers are beginning to explore interactivity with mixed media and new digital scholarship platforms. We might add that humanities publishing can learn from the success of high-priced global contemporary art, and produce limited editions of works for libraries and individual collectors that are differentiated from works for the mass-market. Late capitalism teaches that exclusivity and accessibility can supplement each other without necessarily canceling each other out.
While Miller’s revolutionary hatred toward Humanites One raises the specter of mobs clamoring for Ivy League professors’ heads on pikes, he suddenly turns Burkean when worrying about the commercially focused techno-utopian rhetoric of “creativity” that might seduce his beloved Humanities Two. As with the French Revolution, so with the humanities, whereby the ephemeral paper money of creative industries could replace the enduring gold standard of the canon, “blowing up” the humanities in both senses of the titular proposition. Rejecting the postmodern consumerist utopia wherein “people fish, fuck, film, and finance from morning till midnight” (a tongue-in-cheek parody of Marx’s idea that in a communist society workers could “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner”), Miller instead hopes that universities in general will be shamed by their support of “electronic-gaming militarism,” by “the social sciences’ complicity with slaughter,” and by “DARPA’s ideological incorporation of untenured faculty.” Miller is being careful what he wishes for, advocating for the enhanced analysis of contemporary cultural production and consumption through an expanded cultural and media studies that would track the commodities and service industry from Hollywood to sports to fashion to pornography while, at the same time, incorporating the desires and values of new ethnic immigrants. But the disciplinary heft and sustainable expertise of such work remains in doubt, especially since he has dismissed the arbitrage of old-style critical disinterestedness (associated with old-fashioned subjects like history and literature) as toothless. Miller’s take-no-prisoners strategy leaves him with few potential friends; his proposal to replace everything from art history, philosophy, literature, history, religion, and the languages departments with an overblown cultural and media studies will earn instant enmity, if not raucous laughter — and not just from traditional humanists, given that he blithely ignores the substantial methodological contributions and real discoveries of fields such as sociology, psychology, behavioral economics, and anthropology toward our understanding of the human.
Alternatives? I should first plead guilty to being an administrator at an elite university whose faculty and students may be classified by Miller as belonging to Humanities One, but who are by no means practicing the kind of macho agrarian conservatism that he imputes to the advanced humanities enterprise. Miller’s diagnosis of the U.S. research university fails to see that our current situation is one consequence of the importation of the German research university model in the late 19th century. This brought both advanced scientific research and Kantian critique to our fledgling colleges and seminaries, forcing the values of non-instrumentality and philosophical disinterestedness on the faculty, who organized themselves into the enduring resiliency of departments. As shown comprehensively in Jonathan Cole’s recent book The Great American University, science and medical research, especially since World War II, were hugely subvened by the multi-billion-dollar outlays of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. This massive infrastructural investment made the U.S. academy preeminent over universities in every other country, exacerbated even more by the synergistic IP spinoffs between universities and corporations enabled by the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. This national compact mutually reinforced research, teaching, infrastructural investment, and commercial application; it is now being threatened by the budget-cutting myopia of current politicians and the system’s insufficient attention to the increasing unaffordability of a quality university education for the vast majority.
What appears to Miller as the aimlessness and “impressionistic Olympianism” of some of our humanists is partly structural, since one of the significant defects of the postwar funding system was to establish a much smaller NEH and NEA with roughly 0.45% of the outlays of total federal research support. As a result, the humanities have stayed separate but unequal from the rest of the academy for more than half a century, and have resolutely fallen behind in terms of public support despite verifiable productivity and scholarly excellence. Miller rightly suggests that the NSF should be renamed the National Research Foundation. This was something that Vannevar Bush, the architect of the current federal research funding system, wanted but failed to achieve. Christopher Newfield, an incisive critic of the budgetary outlays of the public university, has likewise suggested, in Unmaking the Public University, that the best defense of the humanities would be to integrate our research irreversibly into the federal funding system. If American humanists were forced to compete for large multi-institutional collaborative research funds, as social scientists and natural scientists (and our counterparts in Europe) do, we would not form a separate and abject enclave. There are vibrant forms of socially engaged humanities research beyond the alternatives of “high-minded disembodied critique” and hegemonic cultural studies, if we only give them a chance. The problem of declining access to higher education is a distinct but separate issue that haunts the humanities, but they cannot be sacrificed at that altar.
While I reject the forced polarization Miller makes between Humanities One and Two, I do accept his belief in our collective social responsibility. The goal of an equitable society, rather than just the values of autonomy and disinterestedness, should be the calling card for the humanities. This, like Miller’s plans for Humanities Three, moves us away from the cloister and toward interaction with the vocations. But there are many ways to do this. The humanities can feature collaborative research by responding creatively to major natural disasters, mapping constructions and transgressions of borders, or experimenting with videogames as vehicles of critique. We can experiment with MOOCs (massive open online courses) and other forms of distance learning. We can trace the emergent alongside the enduring, encourage the vertical integration of advanced faculty projects with graduate training and undergraduate research, and support the growth of new digital platforms. We can also look for multiplier effects by mitigating institutional inequity and simultaneously creating networks of fellowship that connect research universities with sister institutions such as liberal arts colleges, and historically black colleges and universities. (For more details about how we are pursuing these projects at Duke, please see humanitieswritlarge.duke.edu.)
None of these reconfigurations entail “blowing up” the humanities, whether intentionally, through an act of epistemic violence, or inadvertently, through disciplinary over-inflation. Instead of suffering the damp squibs of internecine warfare, we can seek to contribute to many fields of knowledge in a convergent, hyper-connected world that is always looking for excellent renditions of critique and history, skills and expressivity, curation and creativity, digital scholarship and live performance. Will this work? Perhaps; perhaps not. Nothing is assured, not even the melodrama of our own obsolescence.