Pitching the Discipline

Sebastian Lecourt considers "Humanist Reason," the new book by Eric Hayot.

Pitching the Discipline

Humanist Reason by Eric Hayot. Columbia University Press. 232 pages.

DURING A 2017 interview about the Netflix adaptation of his 1986 film, She’s Gotta Have It, Terry Gross asked Spike Lee: “The whole movie about a woman is through the male gaze. Did you hear that? Although, male gaze was not an expression yet, I don’t think, in ’86.” Gross was able to deploy this recondite term — “male gaze” — because of its current ubiquity in online cultural criticism and fan discourse. Yet she was unaware that it had been coined by the British film scholar Laura Mulvey in a 1975 essay that has since been taught to thousands of students in college humanities courses.

Gross’s question, for me, brought home the odd experience of being an academic humanist today. On the one hand, as Eleanor Courtemanche has observed, the language of 1980s–’90s theory, particularly cultural studies, is now everywhere, diffused thanks to three decades of innovative and controversial pedagogy. On the other hand, not only are the scholarly origins of such language rarely acknowledged, but many of the outlets that peddle it also regularly trumpet the demise of the academic humanities. Read or listen to the culture criticism at a site like Slate or even The New York Times and you will hear about the male gaze; about the Other and “othering”; about the political subtexts of gigantic pop culture franchises (how do the new Star Wars films contest the relationship between gender and patrimony?); about the representation of marginalized voices within a culture industry still dominated by white capitalism. But you will also hear the familiar claim that humanities departments are in terminal decline because they’ve gotten too esoteric, or because in a fast-moving tech-dominated world, students would rather align themselves with computer science and engineering. However much traction the insights of recent humanist theory might have gained, common-sense nostrums about the superiority of “hard” to “soft” disciplines and the unimpeachability of empirical facts — especially attractive during the Trump years — remain powerful.

How should a workaday academic listening to NPR in rush-hour traffic feel about all this? Is it a sign that our profession has failed, or that it has succeeded? Would it be possible for the institutionalized humanities to derive some material benefit from their evident influence? This is one way of describing the problem that Eric Hayot takes up in Humanist Reason. Although his book will likely be received as a contribution the current “method wars” within literary studies, Hayot does not wish to abandon critique or otherwise reinvent the work done in humanities departments. Instead, he insists that while such work has done great good in the world beyond the ivory tower, it has also been poorly pitched to the public and to academic administrators by our prevailing methodological “metadiscourse,” He hopes that “a fuller and more complete picture” of what humanistic thinking actually entails will better vindicate it to these two publics, as well as better facilitate our own thinking going forward.

Hayot opens with an anecdote about watching the Stanford economist Romain Wacziarg give a presentation that employs data on “genetic distance” to show how cultural barriers often act as a barrier to technological uptake:

I am sitting in the audience, feeling a little bit like I am losing my mind. All this work to prove that cultural differences affect how groups of people share the proceeds of their innovation and wealth? Something that historians, sociologists, and scholars of literature have spent centuries trying to explain, and around which they have built tremendously influential economic, political, and sociocultural models and theories? Something that everyone in my field already knows?

For Hayot, what this story illustrates is not that humanists and social scientists don’t speak to each other enough, but rather that there is currently no metadiscourse crediting humanistic knowledge with truth value beyond its own sphere. It’s not just that Wacziarg, as an economist, wants to prove the salience of culture in terms germane to his own discipline; it’s that, to the Times, Wacziarg’s version of the case would presumably be newsworthy in a way that a cultural historian’s would not be. If a tree falls in the forest, and Fredric Jameson hears it but Thomas Piketty doesn’t, then it doesn’t really make a sound?

On one level this is bad because it leads to an impoverished public conception of what counts as true: “The casual dismissal of that knowledge as only merely possibly true, but not ‘really’ true, restricts the kinds of knowing that can be available to policymakers and voters and institution-runners.” Moreover, it belies the fact that recent academic theory clearly has changed broader public understanding. Hayot points in particular to feminist and queer theory, which have had an enormous impact upon “the social practices and institutions that govern the workings of gender worldwide,” even if most people have never “heard of Sue-Ellen Case, or Chandra Talpade Mohanty, or Leo Bersani.”


So if the humanities are neither broken nor irrelevant, then why does everyone think they are? Hayot ventures that it is at least partly because humanists have not been describing what they do in the most advantageous ways. He stresses at the outset (citing a recent essay by Adam Kotsko) that he is not blaming humanities scholars for failing to “make the case”; their current institutional predicament is rather the fault of economic neoliberalism and right-wing attacks on the university. But he does want to suggest that “there is a better way to describe the basic justifications, both epistemological and ethical, that govern the work of humanist reason today.”

Hayot’s main target is the neo-Kantian philosopher Wilhelm Windelband and his influential distinction between “nomothetic” disciplines, which seek to abstract general laws of phenomena, and “idiographic” ones that constitute their objects as singular and idiosyncratic. Windelband introduced these terms during his 1894 Rectorial Address at Kaiser-Wilhelms-Universität Strassburg, in which he sought to defend the separate provenance of philosophy, and by extension what we would now call the humanities, against the rising clout of positivism and scientific naturalism. “New developments in the social sciences especially in economics,” writes Hayot, were co-opting the turf of philosophy by trying “to elucidate economic and social laws that could serve both as explanations for the history of the species and as modes of social and political control.”

Wilhelm Dilthey had attempted to resist this creepage by positing a distinction between “the Geisteswissenschaften, the sciences of mind, and the Naturwissenschaften, the natural sciences.” Windelband, however, found those terms inadequate for the simple reason that the distinction between “the mind […] in here” and the world “out there” was untenable. Instead, he proposed that the real uniqueness of philosophy lay not in object but in optic. Where the natural sciences “are concerned with what is invariably the case” (nomothetic), the interpretive and historical disciplines “are concerned with what was once the case” (idiographic) — with the singularities of history rather than the regular laws that govern them. “[N]ature and history are not two modes of being, but the logical objects of two different modes of investigation.”

Windelband’s distinction has been hugely influential in shaping how humanities scholars distinguish their work from the sciences. We claim to study particular cultural phenomena as they emerge from the unpredictable interactions between undergirding social structures, ideological discourses, and individual biographies. Such rhetoric appeals, Hayot suggests, because it spins a larger moral narrative about freedom. Through their “forthright dedication to the singular, the nonhierarchical, and the plural,” humanists believe that they are marshaling “resistance” to any law that “determines [the particular] in advance, explains it away as something other than itself, and locates its essence in something other than a historical moment.” This conviction, Hayot argues, can be seen running through such ostensibly opposed projects as Kantian aesthetics, the New Criticism, Poststructuralism, and queer theory. Yet in the end it offers an impoverished account of what actually goes on in much humanist scholarship, giving short shrift to such important lines of inquiry as genre theory, Marxism, systems theory, or structuralism. By insisting that their objects of study are “unrepeatable and singular,” and “cannot merely be the instance of a more general principle,” humanists have backed themselves into a corner and disavowed some of their own best work.

As a corrective, Hayot proposes an alternative metadiscourse that recognizes the idiographic nature of every discipline:

Everything is historical […] [and] the felt difference between nomothetism and idiographism, the sciences and the humanities […] has to do not with an orientation toward the particular or the general as such, but rather with the relationship between particularity and generality — with analytic scale — as it is established in each discipline’s rhetoric and practice of knowledge-formation.

To flesh out this vision, Hayot recuperates a throwaway term in Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785): Affektionspreis, or “fancy price” — “a mark of sentimental or affective value that elevates a particular object over its replicas, that imbues it with a historical or personal aura.” In Hayot’s hands, Affektionspreis suggests a methodology that neither abstracts the object into an effect of general laws, nor sees it as a singular one-off, but instead foregrounds “relationality as the central feature of the evaluative process.” Every object is in some sense a projection of its method, and vice versa. Thinking about the disciplines this way, Hayot ventures, would not only make humanists less fearful of nomothetic-seeming approaches like distant reading, but would also take the STEM fields off their high horse by opening up their pet objects to humanistic inquiry: “There could and should be humanist thinking in every field, about every kind of object; there should be biologists who tell the story of a single cell, physicists who tell the story of a single atom, and historians of rivers and of continental drift.”

Hayot’s revised account of humanist idiography leads him to propose Nine Articles of Humanist Reason that together make up a new kind of metadiscourse for the humanities. The articles do not proceed in a systematic order: some levy broad pronouncements that sound like institutional mission statements (Article 2: “Human Life Does Not Follow Disciplinary Boundaries; Neither Does Scholarship”; Article 9: “Humanist Scholarship Creates Social Value”); while others revisit common bones of contention from the old theory wars. For instance, Article 3, “All Social Processes and Artifacts Result from Combinations of Primary and Secondary Causes and Secondary Information,” asserts that when humanists analyze their objects, they are looking simultaneously for conscious design and for unconscious structuring factors like ideology, racism, or genre. Perhaps the most crucial to Hayot’s overall argument is Article 4, “Human Social life Is Not Flat; Scales Are Complex, Overlapping, and Porous,” which asks humanists to treat scale pragmatically, as a way of constituting and approaching objects, instead of reflexively valorizing the small over the large, the horizontal over the vertical, and the embodied over the abstract. He writes:

In a redescribed model of humanist reasoning about scale, there would be nothing inherently bad (politically or epistemologically) about larger scales, or good about smaller ones; rather humanist reasoners would pay careful attention to the transactions and jumps across and among scales, as well as to the ways in which nesting and verticality are disrupted in the social by the various forms of human activity.


Although Hayot is at pains to distinguish his revised humanistic metadiscourse from an institutional solution to the humanities’ plight, he does want to suggest how it might reconfigure university curriculum in a way that would make Literature or History departments easier to justify. Defending humanities disciplines in their current form, he argues, has been vexed by the fact that they double as titles for undergraduate concentrations. Students’ degrees end up bearing the names of academic departments, which means that, at a moment when rising tuition and economic inequality have made students especially concerned about cashing in on their degrees, they avoid departments that don’t obviously sound like jobs. Not only does this fly in the face of evidence that degrees in history or English actually have good employment records, but it also distracts students from what most humanities professors actually want them to gain from their classes.

Both problems might be solved, Hayot wagers, if we applied to the undergraduate curriculum his more pragmatic, less typological way of distinguishing disciplines. Thus he proposes that universities retain the current academic departments at the graduate level — e.g., still hire PhDs in sociology who will instruct graduate students in that methodological tradition — while creating a new system of undergraduate concentrations based around the twin axes of “themes” and “skills.” Theme concentrations might target “such topics as Justice, Migration Studies, Translation, Journalism, Poverty, Conflict, Beauty, Television, Society and Technology, and the like,” while the skills concentrations would suggest a particular vocational trajectory like “introductory language learning” or “historical, cultural, and social analysis.” This way of organizing the undergraduate curriculum would allow students to take English courses without foisting upon them that dreaded label of “English major.”

There is much to be said for this institutional solution. Primarily, it acknowledges that a certain amount of the humanities’ bad PR derives from the way that the current system of majors confuses the university’s liberal project with its vocational one. At the dawn of the 19th century, the European university had the former but not the latter: it was a place where the independently wealthy came to acquire the cultural capital befitting their social station. Once universities began to admit children of the industrial middle class, and later the working classes, they had to develop a more robust vocational pitch (the university is where you credential yourself for a career) while reinventing their old liberal one (the university is where you gain the knowledge and critical-thinking skills necessary for democratic participation). The fact that these two rationales continue to exist side by side, neither one reducible to the other, can be seen as a strength of the modern university, but the practice of naming undergraduate concentrations after disciplinary formations seems to conflate them in an unhelpful way. “What are you going to do with that?” asks the proverbial uncle of the proverbial philosophy major, even though the idea was never that a BA in philosophy would tailor you for a job philosophizing.

At the same time, Hayot’s treatise never quite delivers the big ah-ha moment it promises: a new humanistic metadiscourse that will be easier to pitch to academic administrators and the public-at-large. His critique of Windelband and his Articles of Humanist Reason represent a thoughtful deconstruction of the idiographic-nomothetic binary, but they do not actually amount to a catchy slogan that can counter the prestige of STEM. Indeed, one of the underdeveloped suggestions of Hayot’s study is that the humanities’ old metadiscourse remains pretty accurate — not the metadiscourse that cordons off idiography from the tyranny of science, but rather the one that says that the humanities increase people’s “understanding of the actual functioning of the world and its objects, their capacity to experience beauty and wonder, and their collective interest in being, and ability to be, responsible to their lives and their planet.”

Although it has become a truism in some quarters that undergraduates have been scared away from humanities departments by avowedly anti-humanistic theory, the fact is (as I noted at the outset) that 1980s- and ’90s-style humanistic thinking now enjoys great currency beyond the academy. Twitter debates the politics of “colorblind casting” in Netflix’s Bridgerton, while political commentators show how Donald Trump has used the trope of foreignness-as-infection to link COVID-19 to his wider anti-China, anti-globalization polemic. Hayot offers the example of gender and sexuality studies, which have impacted both “the passage of laws” and “individual decisions about what to wear, how to love, or how to live.” Laura Mulvey’s version of the humanities no less than the Columbia Core Curriculum taught generations of students how to perceive the intimate connections between artistic representation, political power, and everyday cultural practice.

So if the old account of the humanities’ value still holds water, how might the institutionalized humanities capitalize (in the most literal sense of the term) upon that fact? The question is tricky because it courts a couple of pitfalls. One is that attempts to publicize the humanities’ “relevance” can so easily slide into dubious claims about their utilitarian benefit — the idea that they make people kinder, or more moral, or more cosmopolitan. You don’t need to be an Arnoldian like Helen Small to see that such a notion has a spotty relationship to history. The more dire pitfall, it seems to me, is that stressing the wider success of humanistic theory might have the unintended consequences of making the academy look irrelevant. If Twitter polemicists are already doing cultural studies for the masses, why do people need professors anymore?

Indeed, there is an uncomfortable synergy between the diffusion of ’90s theory and the deprofessionalization of academe. The rise of a vigorous intellectual sphere on the web has been fed, in some measure, by the exodus of former grad students from an institution that is cutting tenure lines and casualizing its labor force. Conversely, leaning into the public resonance of humanist scholarship might have the effect of encouraging administrators to prioritize a certain superstar-model of the academic celebrity, while the rest of the teaching force becomes increasingly precarious. On balance, it’s a good thing that younger scholars like Northwestern’s Lauren Michele Jackson or UVA’s Jack Hamilton can move between the worlds of academic publishing, highbrow web journalism, and podcasts — but that hardly represents a sustainable professional model. Not every professor has the time or energy to speak to that many publics, and making such a model normative would seemingly increase the gap between a few well-compensated academic superstars and the rest of the increasingly precarious teaching force.

In short, if the academic humanities wish to benefit from their public resonance, they must also be able to defend the specialized space of the research university and the disciplinary department. If there now exists a wider public readership that is receptive to our peculiar language, why do we need to preserve this sheltered space in which specialists advance by arguing with other specialists? Because, it would seem, such a space is valuable in developing counterintuitive or unpopular ideas before they are ready for prime time. This does not mean a trickle-down model of elite ideas making their way from the clerisy to the masses, but rather an account of how the specialized academy fits into an ecosystem of different discourse publics. As professors, we are already used to moving between such publics. We reframe terms and ideas developed in conversation with other researchers for the concerns of students; conversely, our research interests are informed by things we learn from our students, or from exchanges we see on Twitter, or from our involvement in different activist communities. Leveraging the public success of humanistic scholarship means being able to frame the moment of specialized discussion, the moment of classroom engagement, the moment of political activism, and the moment of popular outreach as informing one another without being reducible to one another.

This is where Hayot’s manifesto seems the most shortsighted to me: it treats disciplinarity as an epistemological problem but not as an institutional one. In imagining his reformed university, Hayot leaves academic disciplines intact as a concession to fears about downsizing, but admits that, were we living in flush times, he would just as soon merge different humanities programs into a single “anthropology” or “history” department. He envisions a future of open, experimental, boundary-crossing conversations without addressing how such conversations depend upon the preexistence of more detailed, specialized conversations. His curricular reforms, meanwhile, can feel like an attempt to ask undergrads to live out a fantasy of post-disciplinarity that academics themselves are too timid to embrace: “If we want to teach our students that human life is not organized into disciplines, then we should not organize our curricula into disciplines.”

In all this, Hayot is following the lead of Chad Wellmon, whose work shows how the modern research university emerged as a defensive technology designed to put an elite class in charge of a newly overabundant print sphere. But as I read Humanist Reason I found my thoughts turning to Heather Love’s essay in the recent PMLA section on Cultures of Argument, which reminds us that disciplines and departments have a generative function too. For Love, although it’s great to cultivate more generous styles of engagement or to transgress disciplinary boundaries, it is also important to remember the institutional space that makes this possible: “Perhaps the point now is to hold on to the spaces in which we can disagree with each other, whether generously or churlishly. […] It is possible that some day we will stop fighting with each other. But that might happen only when there is nothing left to fight for.”


Sebastian Lecourt is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston.

LARB Contributor

Sebastian Lecourt is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston. He is the author of Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2018), as well as essays in PMLA, Representations, Victorian Studies, and other journals.


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