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What Are the Humanities For?

By Patrícia VieiraSeptember 17, 2014

The Work of Art in the World by Doris Sommer
The Humanities and Public Life by Hilary Jewett and Peter Brooks

DEBATES ABOUT THE “FUTURE of the humanities” frequently revolve around the suspicion that the humanities might not have one. Yet despite the direness of this anxiety — an anxiety especially personal for every academic worried about professional choices or mortgage payments — conversations on the topic are often dull, long-faced affairs. Every professor has sat through one or another of these depressing discussions. The conversation proceeds according to a familiar set of pieces: there are passionate apologias of work in philosophy, literature, history, and the arts; veiled criticism of the anti-intellectualism of higher education administrators and society at large; and vague pledges to do more interdisciplinary research and extend a fraternal hand to the social and natural sciences, who remain largely unperturbed by this plight. The whole thing wraps up with the reassuring conviction that, if the humanities go down, they will do so in style (we study the arts, after all), and that truth is on our side, all folded in a fair dosage of indulgent self-pity.

Caricature aside, reflections on the role of the humanities in education and in society have recently entered a predominantly reactive, plaintive mode. This is hardly surprising, given the alarming decrease in funding for these fields, not only in the US but also in Europe. As a result, a number of departments have either been closed down or drastically reduced in size. SUNY Albany made headlines in 2010 when it announced that it was closing its French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater programs. Since then, many other institutions have followed suit. Just last May, the University of Saskatchewan in Canada received heavy criticism for firing one of its deans, Professor Robert Buckingham, because he publicly criticized the institution’s TransformUS strategy. Under this plan, the university intends to amalgamate its departments of Philosophy, Modern Languages, Religion and Culture, and Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies in order to cut costs.

University administrators blame the 2008 financial crisis, decreased public funding for higher education, and the ensuing need to control rampant university expenses for such cuts and consolidation, but the problem with the humanities — although intensified by the economic downturn — could already be felt long before. Underfunding followed shrinking enrollments as students migrated to other degrees. In Summer 2013, The Guardian ran an article warning that around 40 percent of the UK’s language departments are likely to close in the next decade due to a lack of students, who generally prefer degrees in other subjects that will make them more “employable.” This trend is tied to a broader perception of the humanities as a luxury, the — admittedly beautiful — icing on a cake that someone else needs to bake.

Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life and Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities offer spirited defenses of the humanities that attempt to explain why these fields of study matter. Both volumes cogently argue for the significance of the humanities, focusing primarily on their role in public life. Studying philosophical, historical, and artistic works may well make one a better person — or at least more knowledgeable, skilled, or intelligent — but these two books are chiefly concerned with the public benefit of such studies. What is the social function of the humanities? Is there a correlation between reading and ethics? What about between the humanities and human rights? Can the arts empower disenfranchised communities and, if so, in what ways?

Brooks’s volume is based upon the papers given at a symposium he convened at Princeton University. It brings together essays by a group of distinguished scholars from various fields in the humanities, together with a few representatives from the social sciences, to reflect on a series of key issues related to the social function of their research and teaching. The editor’s introduction is followed by Judith Butler’s article “Ordinary, Incredulous,” which, surprisingly enough, is one of the most melancholic pieces in the collection. Going back to Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology, Butler denounces neoliberal anti-intellectualism that substitutes ideologically backed “obviousnesses” for genuine thought. One of these obviousnesses is the compulsion to justify the humanities for their instrumental value, as being useful for economic or political life.

The humanities are precisely the space to consider what value is and to ponder upon different ways of valuating, in other words, to unravel the obviousnesses of ideology. For Butler, this space is under imminent threat of extinction. “What can those whose language is consigned to oblivion do?” she asks wistfully. “They can reenter the fray, open up the space between the language that has become obvious or self-evident and the enormous loss it has already accomplished and still portends.” Butler casts scholars in the humanities as a dying race, epigones of a tradition they will continue to defend bravely but hopelessly, eventually foundering in a sea of technocratic indifference.

As heartfelt as Butler’s essay reads, resulting from her own frustration at the utter lack of understanding for humanities research even within university circles, it does not do justice to the energy and vitality of work in these disciplines or to their impact not only on students but also on broader audiences. Humanities scholars are not lone wolves fighting for bygone values in an unfeeling world, but part of a heated debate about the very meaning of education and culture in contemporary societies. Butler almost acknowledges this when she prompts her colleagues to “reenter the fray,” but the overriding pessimism of her text would sooner encourage humanities professors to pack up their heavy tomes and leave the library for a higher-paying job.

The rest of Brooks’s collection emulates the structure of Platonic dialogues. Each of the three sections opens with two brief essays, followed by a few shorter responses to these texts, and a published question-and-answer session from the Princeton symposium. “Part One. Is There an Ethics of Reading?” includes texts by Elaine Scarry and Charles Larmore and responses by Kwame Anthony Appiah, Jonathan Culler, and Derek Attridge. Scarry, a professor of English, makes the case for literature as a way to diminish real-world injury. She claims that legislation to reduce pain and suffering introduced in the West between the 17th and 19th centuries was the product of a change in sensibility resulting from increased literacy and the widespread reading of socially conscious novels.

Scarry credits three of literature’s attributes — empathy, dispute, and beauty — for contributing to this positive historical development. One wonders whether other forms of art and entertainment — storytelling in the pre-Guttenberg era, or cinema and videogames today — might not have characteristics similar to those of literature, and therefore yield similar effects. Of course, one might object that such shifts in sensibility resulted directly from the economic and social upheavals of the period, and not the literature of the time. Capitalism, with its reduction of human experience to labor, production, and capital, seems more responsible for changing societies’ regard for the quality of life during the Industrial Revolution. If humans are only valuable as workers, their bodies are preserved and physical pain avoided not because of empathy, dispute, and beauty, but so that they can continue performing as cogs in the machine of production. Rather than the cause of new legislation to avoid pain, novels and the modification in sensibility they announced were a consequence of wide-ranging transformations ushered in by a capitalist mindset.

In “Part Two. The Ethics of Reading and the Professions” there are essays by Patricia J. Williams and Ralph J. Hexter, and in the last part of the book, “The Humanities and Human Rights,” are two essays by Jonathan Lear and Paul W. Kahn. The contribution by Kahn, a legal theorist, brings the volume full circle, read as a response to Scarry’s text. Kahn is skeptical about the possibility of grounding human rights in sympathy for the pain of others. He believes that much of our legal system and the modern political imaginary are steeped in a logic of violent sacrifice. Human rights law as we know it is a contradiction, since it envisions a world without violence, where the dynamics of sacrifice that undergirds law itself would cease to exist.

Kahn argues that the humanities alone will not be able to lead its students from “exceptionalism to universalism, from sacrifice to contract.” Instead, Kahn advocates for a conception of human dignity grounded in the creative impulse cultivated by humanities disciplines. Studies in the humanities frequently blur the lines between interpretation and creation, granting scholars the dignity of interdisciplinary freedom. “To link dignity to freedom and freedom to creation is to recover the link of human rights to revolution,” Kahn declares. Revolutionary political action would, according to this view, be an extension of the creative act of humanistic interpretation. But Kahn quickly deflates our hope of identifying a path linking the study of Homer’s verse to the storming of the Bastille. “The humanities are not likely to change our political beliefs and practices,” he concludes, “but they may tell us something about why every person deserves our respect.” One of the central tasks of the humanities is to try to pinpoint precisely this “something,” knowing full well that any verdict will always remain provisional.

The format of The Humanities and Public Life succeeds in conveying the multiplicity of perspectives on the public impact of these disciplines while drawing the reader into the conversation. As a panorama of viewpoints, rather than a single-argument text, it would have been useful if the collection had included the outlook of a more varied group of scholars. The disciplines of English and philosophy are overrepresented, and there are no voices from the arts or foreign languages and literatures. Similarly, the book lacks input from younger humanities scholars, who face dwindling job prospects and extended years jumping from one adjunct position to the next. While the book offers a palette of opinions on the function of humanities scholarship by some of the field’s leading practitioners, it strikes one as the defense of a lost cause. It fails to engage with more recent trends in (post)humanistic scholarship, such as the emerging fields of environmental humanities, animal and plants studies. This work is redrawing the traditional boundaries separating humans and non-humans and, therefore, has a direct bearing on contemporary public life.

Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World is much more celebratory in tone than the essays in Peter Brooks’s book. Moving beyond the confines of academic research and teaching, Sommer is confident that the humanities will have a bright future with eminently practical social and political consequences. She skirts the debate about the crisis in the field and opts instead to demonstrate the concrete contributions of the humanities to society at large. As director of the Cultural Agents Initiative at Harvard University, she has organized and participated in a variety of projects that bring art and literature to groups otherwise lacking access to them. The book documents the impact of these projects, delves into the history of the link between the arts and civic engagement, and constructs a theoretical framework for explaining the strong correlation between involvement in the arts and political emancipation.

A key premise of Sommer’s text is that artistic creation and reflection about it are two sides of the same coin. Broadly understood as the study of artworks, the humanities are not so different from art making: there is a constant negotiation between artistic production, reflection, and renewed, more self-aware, artistic production. Sommer breaks down the barrier between those who create artworks and those who analyze them, between cultural “producers” and cultural critics, but also the barrier between institutional figures and those excluded from spaces of high art. She calls for socially engaged humanistic studies to encourage imaginative work in both artistic interpretation and creation. What do these engaged humanities look like? How can humanities professors bridge the gap between scholarship and social intervention?

Sommer’s book is filled with examples of how to leave the ivory tower and take to the streets. These efforts are divided into two broad categories: top-down programs or “Government-Sponsored Creativity,” and bottom-up initiatives. She traces the history of government support for the arts from Roosevelt’s Public Works of Art Project and Federal Art Project that sponsored down-and-out American artists as part of the New Deal, to Antanas Mockus’s use of art to tackle some of the most intractable problems of Colombia’s capital during his two terms as mayor of Bogotá in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

One of Mockus’s best-known plans was the replacement of corrupt traffic police with pantomime artists as a means to address the scandalously high rate of traffic deaths in his city. Many accidents could have been avoided by improving the behavior of pedestrians and drivers, who regularly ignored signs and directions. Instead of a punitive approach involving high fines for those who broke the rules, Mockus thought it would be more effective to shame them into compliance through play and laughter prompted by mimes. This approach, an example of what the mayor called “cultural acupuncture” or arts-driven, social intervention, managed to substantially reduce traffic accidents in Bogotá.

Sommer showcases Mockus’s and similar projects as instantiations of how the government can harness creativity in order to transform entrenched habits and foster beneficial social changes. This approach to the arts does raise the obvious concern that they are valued instrumentally, as serving a higher political or social purpose. Sommer does address this quandary and is careful to distinguish between propagandistic artworks that aim to persuade their audience of a particular political view and the brand of civically committed art she advocates, which does not call for consensus but brings a given issue into sharper focus.

Still, while it is certainly a worthy endeavor to encourage artistic production and find creative solutions to social concerns, not all art serves an immediate goal. More often than not, artworks that try too hard to denounce a problem lose their challenging quality and fail to jolt their audience into thought by demanding an effort of interpretation. As Theodor Adorno points out in his essay “Commitment,” the difference between engaged and non-engaged art is not as large as the one between good and bad art. All good art is necessarily committed, by its stylistic novelty, to impact the way people understand reality. If committed art is synonymous with good art, social change stems less from an artwork’s sociopolitical aim than the ripple effects of its innovative character.

Under the category of bottom-up initiatives, Sommer focuses on three main projects. The Theater of the Oppressed, a Brechtian movement led by Brazilian writer and director Augusto Boal, addressed the glaring social inequalities of Boal’s country onstage with poor Brazilians as actors, prompting them to think of ways to transform their disenfranchised situation. ACT UP, a New York–based collective of activists, used the arts to raise consciousness about the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Finally, Pro-Test Lab, a Lithuanian movement that drew attention to heritage buildings in Vilnius through artistic interventions, helped prevent the destruction of historical sites by rapacious developers. What unites these very different movements is their use of art to denounce and address social ills. For Sommer, they testify to the ability of the arts to successfully intervene in desperate situations, when all else seems to fail, and bring social and even economic gains to marginalized communities.

Wherein lies the transformative power of the arts? How does art foment sociopolitical change? Sommer would agree with Kahn’s claim that there is a strong link between artistic creativity and political freedom. In developing this idea, she draws on 18th-century German writer and philosopher Friedrich Schiller’s influential Letters Upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, which, in turn, are heavily indebted to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Schiller postulated the existence of a play drive in human beings that mediates between our sensuous nature and our more rational selves. The play drive, another name for the aesthetic impulse, is determined neither by physical constraints nor by the laws of reason, and is therefore a realm of freedom. Sommer regards free aesthetic play and, especially, the disinterested judgment of aesthetics, as training for democratic practices, where one needs to distance oneself from particular interests in order to select the best from among different options. The arts promote freethinking, creativity, and critique, all essential qualities for citizens of a democratic polity. “No wonder,” she writes, “aesthetics developed alongside democracy.”

Sommer veers close to the well-worn defense of the humanities as essential for educating democratic citizens. A recent version of this argument can be found in Martha C. Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs Humanities. Twentieth-century history may corroborate the correlation between a vibrant artistic culture and a fair degree of political freedom, but there have certainly been many undemocratic periods in the past when the arts have flourished. Even if democratic states need the arts, artistic production can clearly do without democracy. Could the repeated emphasis on art’s transformative potential, and on artistic solutions to social problems, not obfuscate a more complex reality? Is the reliance on the arts not a quick-fix solution to deeper social concerns?

Not all the inhabitants of, say, a Luanda slum, or of a poor neighborhood in east London, are necessarily artistically inclined. The arts can be a catalyst for further improvements but they are no replacement for good schools, access to healthcare, or adequate housing. I am reminded of an interview with Brazilian musician Anderson Sá, who pointed out that, in the Rio de Janeiro favela where he was born, male children either joined his AfroReggae music group or became drug dealers. The social value of the AfroReggae project is undeniable, but I was left thinking about the fate of all those boys who happened to not be musically gifted.

Brooks’s and Sommer’s books coincide in their desire to persuade those skeptical about the importance of the arts and the humanities of their inherent worth. The volumes set out to prove that these disciplines play a crucial role in public life and that they are vital to contemporary culture. Brooks’s collection often falls short of this goal by sliding into fatalistic rhetoric about the doomed future of humanistic scholarship — the very discourse the book attempts to combat — all while ignoring some of the vibrant new research in the field. In contrast, Sommer is overconfident in the power of the arts to tackle thorny socioeconomic and political problems. Both the despondent and celebratory approaches are symptomatic of the beleaguered state of the field, forced to justify its existence based upon technocratic principles that demand immediate results and fast returns. The humanities are constantly compelled to demonstrate practical results or hopelessly admit to lacking a concrete and immediate function, straitjacketed into foreign modes of valuation lifted from the empirical sciences. Neither a dying set of disciplines nor a panacea for social ills, the humanities remain a central form of human enquiry, in that they shed light on and question the tacit assumptions upon which our societies are based, outline the history of these values, and identify alternatives to the status quo. At their best, both books remind us of the significance of these tasks and show us why the arts and the humanities still matter.


Patrícia Vieira is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, the Comparative Literature Program, and the Film and Media Studies Program of Georgetown University.

LARB Contributor

Patrícia Vieira is Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, the Comparative Literature Program, and the Film and Media Studies Program of Georgetown University. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction (UTP, 2011); Portuguese Film 1930-1960. The Staging of the New State Regime (Bloomsbury, 2013); and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (Continuum, 2011). More information is available at:


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