“Defending” the Humanities

Over the past few years, I have read a number of articles describing, either in the shrill tones of stern necessity, or in the staccato ones of consternated shock, the cuts being made to Humanities programs at different universities. The logic of austerity (from the Ancient Greek austeros, meaning, dry, bitter, or harsh) is being applied here. The Humanities are suffering, we are told, from being too rich, too luxurious.

Although they, on the whole, function together as one of the cheaper ways to deliver education — to invite and create a home for knowledge, complexity, and even (dare I say it?) wisdom — the Humanities have, yet again, been characterized as the province of some species of late Roman decadence, failing to recognize that the barbarians are at the gates, and that they no longer possess the strength and clarity of vision required in these turbulent, lean, mean times. In order for civilization to survive, the austere logic runs, we must implement what can only be called the desertification of civilization itself. But what we in the Humanities are currently experiencing is a problem that has, in one form or another, always been with us; civilization has, as Freud told us, its discontents. Many people have an uneasy relationship to civilization — some hate the fact that civilization exists at all, while others think we are not nearly civilized enough. And then there are those of us who value civilization, whatever its faults, and think of it as an ongoing project — flawed perhaps, near-sighted in some ways, certainly, but essential to the survival of community.

What are the causes of some people’s “uneasy” relationships with culture or civilization? As Freud puts it at the beginning of Civilization and Its Discontents, there are people who experience the “oceanic” feeling of connection with culture (the pledge and seal of which is religion, or at least, a faith in civilization), and those who do not. Freud is uncomfortable with the discourse of the oceanic, countering that we “cannot fall out of this world”; this assertion is meant as both a comfort and a warning. That we cannot “fall out of the world” would suggest that we are always home, no matter where we are (the Disneyfication of this notion is embedded in the song “It’s a Small World, After All”). But this is also cautionary: there is nowhere you can hide; there is no outside to civilization, or to the world. We wish to be part of the world, but want to be a specific part of it — we want to imagine that we are somehow unique. This is the fantasy that the individual ego most cherishes: the world’s separation from it as individual. Yet Freud’s text operates on an implicit assumption that civilization itself might be the cause of the unease, that civilization itself is not “normal.” If it isn’t, then it is not a question of conforming to civilization, nor is it a question of destroying civilization, but instead of re-making civilization itself. Civilization may very well be the problem, not its “discontents” — a term that sounds suspiciously, in this translation, like the 1950s discourse of the “juvenile delinquent.” One could imagine the book’s title being translated as Civilization and Its Delinquents. But of course, one cannot be a delinquent in civilization, because one cannot “leave civilization completely,” which is what delinquency literally means.

If we turn back to what I am calling the desertification of the Humanities, then we see that the logic of austerity is not a re-making of civilization, but its dismantling. One of the Humanities’ strengths is that it works to place history (in the broad and short strokes) in conversation with present conditions, crises, and situations; in other words, it attempts to preserve and learn from the past, even as it subjects both the past and present to the most rigorous forms of critique. So we see that the Humanities retains an uneasy relationship with civilization — exploring it, critiquing it, but fundamentally believing that civilization’s value comes from two essential tenets: 1) we need it both to survive and to flourish; and 2) civilization, to be worthy of the name, must continually remake itself.

But some would argue that this is simply what the logic of austerity is demanding — that civilization (in this case, the university) must remake itself. However, this remaking is being imposed at the expense of the fundamental tenets I outlined above. Saying “we cannot afford the Humanities right now” is like saying we cannot afford electricity, water, food, any form of transit or  mass communication, so we are cutting them out of our budgets because we need to flourish economically. Even the most enthusiastic proponent of economic austerity would find such measures extreme, even counter-productive. But these are the extremities with which we are being faced, bit by cynical bit. This is not civilization remaking itself; remaking, at least at the level of the university, occurs when an individual discipline or program acknowledges the limits of its way of doing History, English, Visual Art, Philosophy, Women’s Studies, Modern Languages, Classical Studies, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, or what have you, and begins, in its curriculum, its research, and its engagement with communities within and without the academy, to enact changes — introducing programs that confront and explore forms of civilization, forms of complexity, forms of culture and politics it has hitherto ignored or of which it has been studiously ignorant. That is remaking. Cutting these programs is not remaking: it is maiming. If you will indulge another analogy, cutting Humanities programs is like amputating a strong healthy leg, and being told to run your disciplinary races more efficiently — with an eye to winning.  Still worse, when you point out the obvious problem in this plan, you are chastised for failing to be a team-player, for failing to see how much faster you will run with the amputation’s attendant weight loss. But the real problem here is not that the Humanities aren’t team-players; the problem is that the logic of austerity is the logic of individualism run rampant. As soon as the tone of the discussion has been determined as “You don’t matter; you are luxury; you need to justify your existence,” then you know that you are not discussing remaking civilization; rather, you are listening to a representative of the most perverse kind of individualism, to someone who is asking you to help dismantle civilization, culture, and community, brick by brick.

What is needed are two things (well, among all kinds of others): 1) We must demand a shift in the terms of discussion —demand that “remaking” not be a mere buzzword, prompting us to commit any number of barbarities in its name; demand that we should work to make the barbaric form of individualism speak its obscene desire and acknowledge its identification with the desertification of civilization. 2) We must insist that we are, in the Humanities, inside and outside the university, the guardians not just of the so-called “luxury” of civilization, but also of the bonds of love and regard that make community possible.

And those bonds are essential — because the only things outside civilization are the lone and level desert sands.