Guest post: “Three reasons why we don’t study what is worth studying (or about some ill-advised developments in the way we approach the object of our study)” (HUMANITIES TODAY)

So far we’ve heard from an anthropologist, a philosopher, a biblical scholar, a classicist, all telling us how they see the challenges facing the world of Humanities today (I apologise if I’ve accidentally left out anybody). Now it’s time to hear from Medieval Studies, which is what I am doing, literary and intellectual history in particular. As a young scholar of medieval literature, I’ve realised how much wonderful research can be done and is being done nowadays in the field and how much potential for growth there is. But I’ve also noticed a few worrisome trends which I think contribute substantially to the ongoing crisis in contemporary academia in Arts and Humanities. It is common knowledge nowadays that academia is in the midst of some powerful changes, signalled first and foremost by the shift in funding sources. As governments tend to step back, private agents, notably from the business world, step forward more and more. Where does that leave Humanities ? In a bad place, some would say, arguing that abandoning higher education and research more and more at the mercy of powerful merchants is bound to take a harsh toll on the naturally fragile, beautiful and shy world of historians, musicologists and literary critics. A bad place it may be ( or it may be about to become ), at least for a good part of Humanities, but I’m not sure whether we are not ourselves to blame for this. I think that, insofar as Humanities are becoming less relevant, this is largely due to some ill-advised developments in the way we approach the object of our study. I’m going to group them under three major headings, answering the question why we ( often ) don’t study what is worth studying:

1) We don’t believe we can. Many scholars seem convinced that nothing can ever really be known. No kind of scientific endeavour can ever be objective. Our biases, whether we’re aware of them or not, our explicit ideologies, our unconscious desires, our cultural conventions and everyday habits will always get in the way, will always undermine the truthfulness of the results obtained in our research. There is a certain grain of truth in this, shrouded of course in thick layers of hogwash. The kind of hogwash often spread around precisely by people who are unsuccessful ( at the very least ) in doing some useful, fertile research. I think relativism is not extraneous to the contemporary proliferation of research projects that are simply just mind-numbingly descriptive. Counting occurrences of whatever in some text or other, whether they can ever tell us anything interesting or not, describing the grammar of a particular text, regardless of whether it raises any kind of issue, simply picking up a text in some out-of-the-way language and spending a whole PhD on relating in a modern language what the author is saying and so on. Examples abound. It’s OK not to say anything meaningful, if all meaning is purely personal and never universal. This is considered particularly relevant when it comes to past-related disciplines like Medieval Studies or Classics, hence the proliferation of Reception Studies. Which are quite legitimate in themselves, but are getting out of hand. Relativism is also responsible for a certain obsession with paradigms and complicated methodologies, particularly in many parts of Continental Europe. I’ve met people for whom ‘What is your angle ?’ (e.g. structuralist, deconstructivist, post-structuralist etc.) was more important a question than ‘What are you studying ?’.

2) We don’t like it anyway. I’m more and more stunned by how many PhD students I see who clearly don’t like the topic of their research. Sometimes they may like studying the topic, but that’s not the same thing. Again, this is particularly relevant to us, students of the more remote past, since we are naturally affected by a wider gap between ourselves and the people we study (because at the end of the day, behind texts, images, artefacts, there’s nothing if not real people). It’s complicated enough that such a gap exists, but so many of us simply revel in it and wilfully transform it into downright contempt. It’s the great epistemological fetish of our times that nothing should ever be studied on its own terms, lest God forbid someone should think we’ve lost our critical capabilities. Of course we should be alert at the potential dishonesty, bias and hidden meanings present under the surface of any given text, but that still means that we have to focus on the contextual meaning of cultural products, i.e. on what they meant for their producers and users. No one outside academia will ever be impressed by our ability to judge people who lived in a very different time and space by our own standards. Nor should they be. The relativism of contemporary literary criticism may grant legitimacy to our subjective impressions of the past, but that does not make them one bit more interesting.

I want here to refer to two phenomena in particular. One is the saddening flourishing of research based on various forms of Cultural Marxism, all the lemon-licking litanies of oppression such as Gender Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Eco-Criticism and what not. Ghetto academia. Their most frequent incarnation (as experienced by many of us at conferences, congresses, colloquia etc.) is the angry feminist. The angry feminist is usually somebody of rather poor academic capabilities who, as a substitute, decides to concentrate in their research on the absorption of feminist dogma and on its application on a particular text or a handful of texts. The result is usually an unbelievably aggressive indictment of some poor chap who lived 1000 or 2000 years ago and who made the mistake of portraying women differently than he portrayed men (sometimes even having only one or two women in the whole text seems statistically relevant enough to people to warrant this kind of analysis). I’m not going to bang on about the way feminist critiques are unhelpful (at the very least), I’m just going to say this: stop this masochistic madness. Any study obviously needs to be done by someone who likes the topic in order to achieve any kind of quality. If you don’t like an author, don’t study them. The second phenomenon is the need felt by many academic speakers to disparage the intelligence of the people they study. This started as a rhetorical device: small jokes to keep the audience well-humoured. Nowadays it often becomes downright mockery. I believe in respect. We need to tell these people: don’t worry, we won’t judge your critical capabilities any harsher if you’re respectful to the Ancient or medieval author you study.

3) We’re too lazy to do it. I wonder what the polite word for this is. I think it’s ‘intensive specialisation’. Find a small field, preferably not requiring any complicated skills, and stick to it. I don’t particularly wish to be nostalgic, but I tend to think it didn’t use to be like this. Or else we couldn’t have got very far in scientific knowledge. Nowadays, though, we thank Heaven for the tremendous burden of past and contemporary scholarship left for us to sieve through and use it as a pretext for not widening our skills. ‘Keep it simple’ is what we like. Find simple research topics for your simple academic skills. But human culture isn’t simple, it’s complicated, always with many branches wonderfully intertwined. If we care about our potential for progress and growth in knowledge, we need to start saying ‘No’ to all the classicists who don’t know Greek and the medievalists who’ve never opened the Bible. Admittedly, our spiritual forefathers 150 years ago were so thinly spread that much of what they produced now makes us smile. But responsible, thoroughly researched studies of small, walled-in topics, devoid of any useful perspective is not going to get us anywhere either.

And now, back to economic challenges and a final word on merchants and team-picking. I know vicious ‘fat-cat’ capitalists, I have a few in my immediate family. I know the way they think. I know how they feel about Arts and Humanities: they’re positively fascinated. Still, that does not mean they’re willing to swallow any bullshit we give them. I can’t really say whether, in a world where they alone decided who gets funding to study what, we would get picked last. It’s possible. But don’t be fooled: this is not because we’re fragile and shy virgins. It’s because we’re not. It’s because we’re fat, jaded couch potatoes who’ve been around the block too many times.

by Radu Razvan Stanciu, PhD candidate in Medieval Studies at Cambridge University

This post is part of the weekly series: HUMANITIES TODAY- a series of provocative and interesting posts from people within the academia or the educational sector

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One thought on “Guest post: “Three reasons why we don’t study what is worth studying (or about some ill-advised developments in the way we approach the object of our study)” (HUMANITIES TODAY)

  1. I am happy that you tackled one aspect we haven’t talked about so far, the limits we set for ourselves. I have also been surprised by how many people do not really like their topics, and turn the academic research in a clerk type of work. Secondly, I really enjoyed how you highlighted some of the faults of the hot trends in the interpretative areas, such as the feminist/post-colonial/marxist ones. Unfortunately, all too often the scientific discourse becomes a “political-correct” one, leaving no room for debate, dialogue and a critical evaluation of the premises which lie at its foundation.

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