Guest-post: The ‘Value’ of the ‘Humanities’ (HUMANITIES TODAY)

“…Un dìvedrete

mendico un ciecoerrar sotto le vostre

antichissimeombre, e brancolando

penetrarnegliavelli, e abbracciarl’urne,



“Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.”


Writing in the early seventeenth century, Caspar Ens begins his enquiry on the malignancy and enervative properties of study (to be found in the second volume of hisThesaurus Politicus)by imagining the Gothic hordes rampaging through Greece. Fire-brands alight, they approach the libraries and storehouses of Hellenism with incendiary intent, until their flaming advances are stayed by one particularly perspicacious fellow who counsels his comrades to douse their torches. “Leave them their learning”, he says, “for study is nothing but a plague. A plague that destroys the spirit and vanquishes the strength”. This, along with other similarly-themed and equally hilarious anecdotes, was collected by (who else but) the Reverend Robert Burton for the fifteenth chapter of the third section of the first book of The Anatomy of Melancholy, which is entitled “Causes of Melancholy: Love of Learning, or overmuch Study. With a Digression of the Miseries of Scholars, and why the Muses are Melancholy”. I am embarrassed about how easily my copy of his absurdly huge tome flops open at this page.

Since Alexandra kindly asked me to contribute to her series on the value of the humanities I have read with interest the previous posts (and disagreed most profoundly with a couple of them). Illness compelled me to miss my appointed slot, so now unfortunately my contribution might now look something like a delayed coda, the hideous minor-chord jeremiadiccounterpoint (o vosomnes!) to the upbeat positivity that has gone before.

Truly, if you asked me whether or not I thought that the research undertaken in various humanities departments at universities across the developed world had a profound and lasting future valuein the daily lives of the general public (who, after all, in many cases pay for that work to be undertaken), I’d say to you “What? Are you fucking crazy? Of course not. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Leave me alone now please”. And yet, here we are. It’s absolutely vital that we ask these questions, of course, and I’m well aware of the range of answers that would dispute this position (‘somebody needs to be doing this work!’; ‘good research makes good teachers’; ‘sophisticated humanities research is the yard-stick of a civilised society, and we should scrutinise those who say elsewise for symptoms of philistinism and conservatism’). Ultimately, we have to parse what we might mean by ‘value’ (for what? to whom? at what cost?) and understand if there is anything worth salvaging out of the infernal machine of knowledge production that might be of use to our weary future selves who will doubtless be fighting against the hyper-capitalist plutocracy whose monstrous birth we’re currently bystanding.

Currently, as academics scrabble around the scorched post-eschaton funding landscape created by the flatlining West’s fiscal clusterfuck and the astonishing neoliberal ‘austerity’ landgrab that is masquerading as its resuscitation, humanities research is being made to justify its existence as never before. To some, this is an affront; to others, an inconvenience; to a laudable proportion, an opportunity. Depressingly, though, many of the attempts at justification in this realm of social-impact read like the petty pleading of self-preservation, with everyone operating at the micro-level of desperately trying to save their own skin: fear and self-regard create situations in which, instead of thinking through the macro-value of the humanities, all that’s created are manifestos about why my work is just so very important, why I should be left alone to carry on doing whatever it is I’ve been doing for the last two decades, how a research project I’ve been planning for the last five years irritatingly now has to have a few paragraphs bolted on to the end about how I can get on local radio and ‘do a blog’. Ultimately, all we’re left with is an archipelago of individual academics striving to justify being paid for isolated hobbyist endeavours, most of whom are extremely resentful of being made to speak about the potential social efficacy of their work. And the research itself? For every David Graeber, Susan Holman, or Katrina Navickas out there at the coal-face, producing work that’s genuinely synthetic in its attempts to not only understand the mechanisms of past humanity but also to practically ameliorate its future, there are hundreds of academics ceaselessly churning out what’s essentially intellectual landfill on the tax-payer dime, writing articles that will be read by vanishingly small amounts of people on topics of stunningly marginal interest. They’re working long hours doing this, in stressful conditions, in order to contribute to metrics of ‘research excellence’ (either official and regimented, or nebulous and peer-assigned) over which they have no control. And that’s sad, and they need pity not contempt, because we shouldn’t hate the player, we should hate the game. As Alexandra’s wrap-up post indicated, there are certain pre-existing systemic constraints that make a truly open-ended engagement with these issues immensely difficult. Humanities research that has a wide social value might well be created by outward-facing academics, but if the metrics already established to measure research ‘value’ have failed to sufficiently recognise or appreciate it, then frankly, on a professional level, you might as well not have bothered. For the longest time, hunkered down inside the ivory circle-jerk cocoon of a humanities department, it was considered extremely stigmatising and career-damaging if one produced research that had any kind of social efficacy or could speak to a wide audience. If your research was useful and comprehensible, well, you were doing it wrong. These years of intellectual isolationism have only exacerbated the current situation, giving grounds for the mendacious state-slashers to argue for the irrelevance of the humanities and the need for its funding to be eviscerated; this is the whirlwind that has to be reaped.

Ultimately, if you’re not part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem. Studied neutrality is no longer an option. Coasting through the club-class bagatelle of academia, alternately research-languid and admin-crushed in perpetual cycles of stimulation and crisis, one should no longer contend that the questions of outside relevance or social engagement just aren’t your thing. If you abrogate and deny any responsibilities to deal with this issue and retreat into a business-as-usual mentality, eventually they will come for you, and frankly, so they should: your refusal to engage is precisely what the Right wants as it gleefully strips back the apparatus of humanities education. You are the excuse they need. You are the bullet in the gun that is pointing at your own head.

And some fragments towards a potential value for the humanities? If some of academia’s attempts to clamber out of a self-dug grave (impact bolt-ons! a grainy b&w photo (thumbs-up holding a book) in the local freesheet! simulcasting on tumblr!) look increasingly sclerotic and risible, what do I reckon?What does the humanities have that might help its namesake? Conveniently, perhaps, cruising as I am close to my word-limit means this is hardly the venue for a manifesto (even if I had written one, which I haven’t, and even if anyone cared what I thought, which believe me they don’t), but several thoughts assail me, of the most general and generic variety. The most obvious but perhaps least-stated is the role that humanities research might play in combatting presentism. If you work in the humanities, the chances are that you work with dead stuff: dead lives, dead ideas, dead bodies, dead dreams. Just dead. Not just the obvious stuff, like history and archaeology and all that jazz, but English and Classics, Philosophy and Sociology: you’re all thigh-deep in the charnel-house, intellectual roustabouts making jugglery with skulls. In an age which almost triumphantly revels in the importance of The NOW, all bleeding edge with fauxhawks and oversize spectacles (for whom ‘retro’ is just another way to feed the past through the present’s homeostatic mincer and make everything look the same), this sense of chronographic difference is a laudable focus. It is sufficiently electric simply to demonstrate that there was another time, another social space, another army of lives, all separate from the realm of the present, with their own dreams and hopes and failed visions: just to swim discursively in this sea of otherness is to sharply break the present’s arrogant self-satisfied sense of solipsism, forcing its face towards a past that was once just as fine, and is now dead and gone. Thus, to remind the present of its fleeting nature and to handle the past’s web of narrative threads works to show how contingent and singular our contemporary world actually is: our present is not inevitable, nor is it immutable. It isn’t necessary, in this reading of the human value of research, to use the past as some sort of hornbook or cribsheet for inciting radical social change (I mean, hey, you can, and that’s cool and all, but interpreting past social development to predict and then instigate mass revolutionary action is a little played out and, uh, nineteenth-century). Considering the extraordinary paucity of cultural reflection about mortality (social; corporate; yours; mine) and impermanence, simply being the blind beggar interrogating and embracing the tombs is a significant first step, because it stands as an exploration of profound otherness that our preening self-regard too frequently elides.

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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