Category Archives: Humanities Advocacy

VIA the ASECS newsletter: Julie Hayes’ President’s Column, May 2013

[Julie Hayes asked me if she could re-post her May 2013 President's Column  on the blog, and I agreed. Take a look, and hit "Reply" if you want to add to our ongoing discussion on the uses of literature and the humanities--DM]

“Why college?”

Julie Candler Hayes
@J_C_Hayes

My spring column is somewhat delayed this year (as was spring itself, in our region). The good feelings and intellectual recharge born of the April ASECS meeting in Cleveland quickly disappeared in the late-season avalanche of institutional demands. I continue to work through my stack of books on the state of American higher education. Having looked last time at Clayton Christensen’s less-than-edifying vision of disruption fueled by underpaid adjunct faculty and government-subsidized student loans to for-profits, I’m turning to two defenses of the humanities and liberal arts, Mark William Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? (2010) and Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (2012). I wanted very much to like both of these books, and there is much to enjoy in them: both are well-written, thoughtful meditations on the value of a liberal education. And yet…

I heard Mark Roche speak nearly fifteen years ago at a summer chairs’ seminars run by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. At the time, he’d recently finished a stint as chair of the German Department at Ohio State and had moved to Notre Dame as Dean of Arts and Letters. He spoke on ways that department chairs could promote their departments and the ideas came so quickly that I couldn’t write fast enough to get them all in my notes.[1] I picked up his 2010 book hoping for an equally intense blast of arguments for the humanities and strategies for changing the anti-intellectual bent of so much recent debate. This is a more philosophical book, however, an extended answer to the question asked by so many parents: “What can my child do with a major in…?” For Roche, the answer is three-fold. The liberal arts have intrinsic value, inspiring learning for its own sake; they cultivate the “intellectual virtues … requisite for success beyond the academy”; and they lead to the development of a sense of vocation, which he defines as “participation in a higher reality, a commitment to the transcendent.” Because the points are simple ones, the book defies simple paraphrase. It’s worth reading both for the subtlety of the ideas and for the moving evocations of personal experience, especially in the classroom. And I could not have agreed more on the reasons for serving as dean: “One can only assume such a role and persevere in it because one identifies with the goal of fostering learning, scholarship, and formation, and one recognizes the potential to impact the world more deeply in a position of leadership, even if at some level the impact is less embodied and more abstract than when working with many students and writing or researching full-time” (150).

I sighed, therefore, when I encountered an all-too familiar suggestion that college education too often fails in its mission by faculty who substitute “low ambitions” for great ideas and teach only “mediocre books that derive from faculty research interests or ideological perspectives” (32). Roche points to Stanley Fish’s May 2003 Chronicle essay, “Aim Low.” It’s unfortunate, because while Roche and Fish might never be able to speak the same language of morality and higher calling, they certainly both champion rigorous thought and eschew platitudes—Fish’s chief target in his essay.

I experienced a similar momentary disappointment in Andrew Delbanco’s book. Delbanco’s sense of what college is “for” is as high-minded as Roche’s, but as the title suggests his approach is historical and polemical. Delbanco underscores the fault-lines in self-congratulatory narratives about expanding educational access, arguing that colleges and universities “have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society” (122) and drawing analogies between the decline of students’ educational experience and that of faculty careers: “the gap is widening between the majority and the select few” (142). His final chapter, “What is to be done?” is maddeningly brief, offering glimpses of a few “high-tech” and “low tech” solutions, before focusing, oddly, on the need for “teachers who care about teaching.” Given his own analysis of the social, political, and economic challenges facing higher education, why turn to the evils of professionalization and the purported disconnect between teaching and research?[2]

Both Roche and Delbanco are literary scholars. Presumably, we all came of age during the same period, riding the wave of the theoretical turn in literary studies in the 1970s. Their experiences were perhaps different from mine. I remain unconvinced that attentiveness to form, to the rusing strategies of language, to the imbrication of discourses within one another, is somehow alien to intellectual ambition, to educating for democracy. Au contraire, collègues!


[1] Fortunately, the talk was published: Mark W. Roche, “Strategies for Enhancing the Visibility and Role of Foreign Language Departments,” ADFL Bulletin Vol. 30, No. 2 (Winter 1999), 10–18.

[2] For an infinitely cruder version of this argument, see a recent opinion piece by Chris Buczinsky and Robert Frodeman in Inside Higher Ed: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/04/30/essay-how-keep-humanities-vibrant-rejecting-elite-universities-models.

What Matters in Humanities Education

Since we like to talk about teaching here too, readers might be interested in my report on the Teagle Foundation‘s convening on “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning.” The conference specifically addressed the humanities. This link will take you to the web page for the event; scroll down a bit for reports by me and by Ashley Finley of AAC&U. I welcome comments and feedback on what you think matters.

Kathryn Temple, “The Ends of Cultural Studies in Curriculum”

 In the summer of 2010, I was asked to participate in a panel at our annual eighteenth-century studies conference called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.” The panel responded to the 2008 essay in Profession entitled “Stopping Cultural Studies” by William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin. Little did I know that the panel would come at the very moment the issue of the relationship between literary history and cultural studies would surface in our Department.

As new chair in 2009, the third in five years, I had walked into a cluster of problems known to most chairs in these years of economic crisis.  We’d lost faculty, lost budget, lost space. Thus I guess I can be excused for leaving curricular reform largely in the hands of the curriculum committee over the opening year of my chairship. But in December 2010, a coalition of senior faculty made curriculum my business by taking their concerns to the dean. Not present, I could only reconstruct this conversation from after-the-fact reports, but it seems that these colleagues were concerned about our department’s failure to teach literary history. What the dean took away was that our Department no longer taught literature or literary history, but had been “taken over” by cultural studies. My dean was understandably concerned. He responded by calling me in for an emergency meeting to discuss splitting the Department into three smaller departments: one for literary history “as it is traditionally taught,” one for cultural studies, one for writing. I explained to him that this would result in the death of traditional literary studies as only three or four of our remaining faculty would define themselves as doing “literary history in a traditional way.” (Ironically, of the three faculty who had met with him, not all were in that category.)  I predicted that the rest of the ordinary faculty were very likely to migrate to what he was calling “cultural studies” whether or not they really had that training, meanwhile leaving “writing” almost entirely to adjunct faculty. “Stopping cultural studies” as Bill Warner and Cliff Siskin call it, at least in my department, would not have led to a revival of literary studies under new terms but rather to a kind of fragmentation that (given the way small departments are being eliminated these days) could quite possibly spell the death of literary history (“as it is traditionally taught”) at Georgetown.

In response, I brought this issue to the Department at our next meeting. Other faculty were concerned: unused to such administrative scrutiny, they worried about our larger presence on the campus and about academic freedom. They pointed out that most of our course titles were indicative of literary history rather than cultural studies orientations and wondered what the dean’s intervention might mean. The issue of our lack of collegiality was raised: what had made our colleagues feel so unheard, so marginalized in the Department, that they now felt going to the administration their only option? Resulting discussions in the department addressed all of these issues. We opened up the curricular reform process through holding numerous focus group meetings, inviting each member of the faculty in for discussion. We invited the dean to a larger department meeting and then held more department meetings to discuss our findings and move forward with curricular reform. Meanwhile, in our hiring in seventeenth-century British literature and culture and twentieth-century American literature and culture we were especially alert to issues involving the teaching of literary history.

Our curricular work and hiring were eventually shaped by our discussions, by awareness of the issues raised in the provocative Profession essay, but also by an important essay by Jennifer Summit, “Literary History and the Curriculum,” published in the ADE Bulletin in 2010. There Summit discusses the problem of the literary history/cultural studies divide given that, as she says, “our students were asking for something that we no longer believed in: the arc of literary history no longer holds sway as a dominant mode” (49).  After cultural studies, Summit argues, there is no coherence to literary study, no accepted set of great works, no accepted periodization. The admonishment to “go beyond the literary!” that Warner and Siskin discuss and reject in their Profession essay has served its purpose: it has, in fact, destabilized the canon and accepted notions of literary history; agreement on what texts should be taught cannot be reached except in the very broadest terms while agreement on how texts should be taught is even less likely.

Our faculty did agree on one thing: we needed to bring coherence to a curriculum that had long been a hodgepodge of courses, courses generated by our faculty research interests rather than by any effort to develop an overview of our field. Like Summit’s curriculum at Stanford, our curriculum offered no clear direction to our students. We had no literary survey courses, no introductions to the major, and no sets of courses meant to offer a sequential experience to our students. The conclusion was that our curriculum must cohere around something or at least must appear to cohere to students and parents and deans. The question became how to do this with a diversely trained and much diminished faculty in a departmental culture that has long valued as a sign of intellectual integrity the teaching of research interests rather than a set curriculum.

Although I supported the development of critical methods courses and literary history survey courses that held the promise of “coherence,” on another level talk of coherence worried me. The risk, as Warner and Siskin suggest, following Latour, is that explanations of complex systems that reduce them to one or two representative moves like “coherence” empty out complex chaotic reality. Historical coherence could result in a comforting lockstep progress through the literary periods as taught in the 1960s; theoretical coherence could result in an intro to methods course of the “teach three methods” variety. In seeking coherence, we could replace the rich but chaotic complexity of the English Department’s approach to culture with (as Latour has it) “some stuff” like historical coherence, presenting in the end something that looks nothing like the not always coherent world of intellectual possibilities that we wish to pursue in our scholarship or to teach our students.

In my struggle to negotiate “coherence,” I’ve been thinking hard about what our work means, both our scholarly work and our pedagogical work. I’ve been returning to the past, trying to recall (and to call up) what first excited me about literature and what first excited me about eighteenth-century studies. That excitement came not from any historical or theoretical coherence, but from complexity and a seemingly open-ended approach to problems of meaning. Indeed, what had frustrated me in literary study as an undergraduate was the efforts my professors made to maintain coherence. In the 70s, there were many who oversimplified the New Criticism, adhering to the coherence of a method of close reading that pretended to know only the literary work and, of course, only the literary works that counted as canonical. Others taught what I thought of as “clump and dump” courses, knowledge downloads of canned historical “truths” that students memorized and reproduced on exams. It was with a huge sense of relief that I encountered various approaches loosely reflective of cultural studies when I went back to school in the late 80s. Though I skated on the surface of understanding and it was years before I began to see the implications for my own work, I took full advantage of the liberty “cultural studies”–very broadly construed–afforded for reading outside the narrow confines of the canon and for interpreting outside the bounds of New Criticism. For me it opened up literary study to the world and the world to literary study. That said, because my graduate career coincided with a moment when cultural studies was already beginning to feel a little used up, I never had to embrace any particular version of it, never became a deconstructionist or a Marxist critic or even a feminist critic in the sense that many were. I had all the freedom and none of the responsibility.

To pursue a career based on this incoherent and under-theorized approach to theory may seem hopelessly naïve, and yet I have spent twenty years drawing on hybrid approaches from many different methodologies. Always a lumper, never a splitter, I would hate to see us turn away from cultural studies, from something that has offered so many rich ways of thinking about what we do. I would hate just as much to see us turn away from close reading and careful analysis or from nuanced understandings of literary history. But above all, I reject the narrow ideological biases that so often seem to drive English Department discussions. The risk of issuing a universal call to “Stop Cultural Studies” lies in its binary approach to what we do and in the possibility that various power groups will attempt to force one or the other of these binary poles (cultural studies OR literary history; close reading OR survey courses) on their peers. When “presentists” bash historicist approaches without having read the historical tradition and literary historians denounce theory without reading it, I feel that wonderful wide world of new ideas, approaches, texts shrinking.  So let’s not “stop” cultural studies, but rather embrace it, precisely for the reasons Siskin and Warner want to end it, precisely because it’s too broad, because it doesn’t focus on literature, because no one can really define it. Cultural studies perhaps more than any other change in the past thirty years has given us the freedom to craft careers that take us in new directions and allow us to reinvent ourselves.

What’s next, I believe, is the very period of questioning, rethinking, and remapping that we’re experiencing now. If, as Siskin and Warner say, the function of English Departments from their beginnings has been to mediate society’s relation to technologies of knowledge, then let’s explore the possibilities offered by what they call a retooling. This retooling need not mean that we toss out the old toolbox (indeed, the new toolbox wouldn’t have been possible without the old one), so much as add to it. I see exciting new directions indicated by new technologies but not confined by them: neuroscience offers us new ways of thinking about how our brains process text; affect theory allows us to re-examine what used to be called the age of reason; the overabundance of our current access to archives places ever greater importance not on what we know but on how we manage the knowledge in those archives. If this results in incoherence, if one thing seems to blur into another, then the task becomes the making of distinctions and the foregrounding, I believe, of why we make particular distinctions at particular times, not the truth value of those distinctions. In the end, if pressed to find some sort of curricular coherence, I’d ask us to focus on this foregrounding, to add to the call to “always historicize” the admonition to “always articulate,” to articulate what we are doing and why it matters, to our students and to ourselves. This, rather than some a manufactured “coherence” that shuts down possibilities, is our responsibility as teachers, as interpreters and transmitters of a literary and cultural history that is always, at every moment, being newly created.

Works Cited

Summit, Jennifer. “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What and Why.” ADE Bulletin No. 149, 2010. 46-52.

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession. 2008. 94-107.

Kathryn Temple, J.D., Ph.D.

Chair and Associate Professor

Department of English

Georgetown University

The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies

As you’re all thinking about panel proposals for next year’s ASECS, we’re going to revisit the conversation from a panel at last year’s meeting:  “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  Over the new few weeks we will be posting essays based on comments delivered at this panel, as well as some follow-up ideas that were not presented at the panel.

The inspiration for the panel that generated the essays that will follow came from two directions: first, from an observation that the Group for Early Modern Cultural Students (GEMCS), originally conceived to bring together scholars from a range of pre-1900 fields, has been attracting mostly students and professors in the field formerly known as “Renaissance;” and second, from the publication of William B. Warner and Clifford Siskin’s essay, “Stopping Cultural Studies.”  As chair of the Cultural Studies Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), I proposed a session that combined these topics called “The Beginnings and Ends of Cultural Studies.”  While these two topics are not obviously related, both share certain challenges.  GEMCS had lively conferences, but never quite succeeded as much as was hoped in opening up the possibility of more integrated and far-reaching considerations of literature and culture across field divisions.  Partly, I think, this is due the fact that while twenty years ago the phrase “early modern” offered a range of possibilities, it has now, at least professionally, simply replaced “Renaissance,” so younger scholars coming into the discipline cannot be blamed for (mistakenly) assuming that a paper on Jane Austen would have no place at a GEMCS meeting.   Perhaps, though, there is a deeper issue as well and that recent stresses on the profession as a whole have made field distinctions even more important. If you can only go to one conference every year, it might be a better investment to seek out other specialists.  While decisions based on travel budgets are understandable, we nevertheless need to continue to think about ways to promote research and teaching that move beyond the limits of periodization.

While some of the papers on the panel considered periodization, most more centrally addressed the problem of Cultural Studies.  Warner and Siskin propose that we abandon the entire enterprise called “cultural studies,” although they do not offer an alternative and insist that they are under no obligation to do so.  They see two main problems with cultural studies as currently practiced: (1) that the term “culture” hides the doubled meanings of Culture (meaning great works of art, literature, etc.) and culture (meaning everyday practices, “non-literary” texts, etc.) and that (2) as a result we have been unable to “transcend previous limits” (104).  Much as we try to move beyond them, we keep getting pulled back to traditional objects of study and traditional disciplinary boundaries. 

            The panel attracted considerable attention, perhaps in part as a result of the rhetorical flair involved in telling one’s colleagues to cut it out.  Warner and Siskin are right that “culture” is a “Teflon category.”  But if the category contains so much slippage, how will we be able to tell when we’ve stopped?  Wouldn’t anything produced after stopping be easily folded back into this category?  How is “remediation”—the only suggestion of an alternative in the essay—not part of “culture”?  Their suggestion to stop cultural studies is so intriguing, disturbing, and puzzling,  I think, because in practical terms—and as defined by Warner and Siskin– it translates into stopping literary scholarship altogether, as cultural studies has become so amorphous as to encompass everything but perhaps New Criticism, to which few are clamoring to return in its original restricted form.  Thus, I think this essay provokes a key professional anxiety of our moment: that we will be stopped altogether.

            Over the next month or two, we will be posting the brief comments written by the panelists who participated, who attended, and/or who have something to say about this issue.   These essays take seriously the possibly of stopping, but also explore ways to get started again.  They look at cultural studies in the broader context of disciplinary survival.  Some address how cultural studies has disturbed, challenged, and stretched departments and curricula.  And yet if, in spite of this turbulence, cultural studies ultimately, as Warner and Siskin suggest, preserves rather than upends, then maybe it has been the ally of literary study all along.  Warner and Siskin observe that cultural studies has insufficiently transformed institutional practice; some of the essays, however, record experiences of grappling with the opposite objection: that cultural studies has changed department offerings too much.  Both objections point to a concern that literature department curricula are somehow not aligned with the needs, desires, or ideal education of today’s students.  I wonder, then, if taking this common ground seriously might lead us to another way into the problem.  Perhaps we might think about ways to move from this one-way street to a two-ways street; that is, to think about what we want students to learn as not only shaped by our research programs, but as itself a partner in further inquiry.

 

Works Cited

Warner, William B. and Clifford Siskin. “Stopping Cultural Studies.” Profession (2008): 94-107. Print.

Pirate Studies and the End of the Humanities

This morning’s Inside Higher Education carried an interesting article by Stephen Brockmann about the destruction of the humanities, making the case that we brought it upon ourselves by abandoning the Western tradition.  This is not the first time this case has been made, and it was something I took up in my MLA paper on a roundtable honoring the late queer theorist and pirate scholar Hans Turley (author of Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash) called “The Perils and Pleasures of Legitimacy.”  What follows is an adaptation of that piece, which I think also provides a response to Stephen Brockmann’s piece.

In the last 20 years or so, there have been roughly two different conversations about the object of study in eighteenth-century research and in the profession in general.  One formerly high-profile dialogue has been over the “canon,” in which teaching The Rover in a Restoration drama course felt radically innovative.   The other had to do less with which aesthetic objects attracted our attention and in some way presumably represented national culture than with topics that cropped up well-regarded texts and were threaded throughout a very wide variety of printed documents, such as travel narrative, newspapers, periodical, broadsides, scandal sheets, and sensational narratives designed to sell quickly.  While an earlier generation may have pursued studies of major authors or thematic issues across several authors, the movement loosely referred to as “cultural studies” opened up the possibility of exploring previously overlooked and in many cases despised objects.

Clearly, Hans Turley was one of the pioneers of this kind of work in 18th-century studies, a decision that brought him success, but also some challenges—the worst of which being a widely-circulated email message that mocked his choice of subject as both weirdly prurient and hopelessly trendy.  Perhaps thinking together about rum, sodomy, and the lash no longer has the shock value that it once did.  There might be a case, as the title of this panel suggests, that pirate studies have become fully legitimate, so I will briefly consider both the perils and pleasures of this possible legitimacy.

Turley was not the first in eighteenth-century studies to look at strange objects across literary and popular texts.  Terry Castle’s work on masquerade and then later oddities like the female thermometer provided an exciting alternative to then-dominant forms of scholarship. What distinguished what I will call here “pirate studies” from other fine work was its idiosycracy.  Prize-winning and highly influential studies such as work on the novel by Michael McKeon, Nancy Armstrong and more recently Ruth Perry; work on the drama by Doug Canfield and Robert Hume, have proven powerful because of their interest in systems and a certain claim to comprehensiveness.  “Pirate studies,” by contrast, tends to be unsystematic or even anti-systematic. Pirates stumble across genres and straddle multiple ideological possibilities.  They have no stable meaning, but suggest different possibilities at different moments.  “Pirate studies” became exciting because it suggested ways to find meaning across cultural objects in ways that included, but also exceeded, literary criticism.

If “pirate studies” were once risky, they have now, arguably, become commonplace.  We might lament a loss of shock value and even balk at a fetishization of the strange: Now that we have books on pirates, prostitutes, queer people, Methodists, rakes, and travelers, are we pointing graduate students to find ever-strangers objects?  Have we run out of weirdness?  Has this fascination with strangeness come at the expense of a coherent understanding of the period?  Observing the multiple threats to the survival of the humanities in higher education, critics will say that maybe we would be doing better if we weren’t spending so much time on rum, sodomy, and the lash.  In an article last year in The American Scholar, for example, William Chase argued that the humanities have dug their own grave through trendiness and triviality; as a result, English departments have lost students and lost funding.  One peril, then, would be that ‘pirate studies’ could lose sight of the literary object that at one point constituted the field.

I have two responses here. First, losing sight of the literary object is not necessarily a peril.  As Gerald Graff pointed out 20 years ago in Professing Literature, the moment during which a literary object defined the field of English studies was a brief one; the discipline itself flourished before it become tightly focused on the literary object. There is reason to suspect, then, that there might be a way to flourish once again without a literary object at the center—or perhaps we should say that the decentralization of the literary object will not in itself destroy the discipline.  If literature has less centrally defined English departments (and perhaps also foreign language departments), other objects of study have flooded in.  Some are non-canonical objects, but others are fascinating and important texts abandoned by the fields they once defined. We are more likely to find Adam Smith on the syllabus in an English department than in history, philosophy, or economics.  In a sense, then, we might be moving back to a more broadly rhetorical model that defined English departments at their inception.

Any struggles over the legitimacy of disciplinary objects in English and foreign language departments, however, lately seem overshadowed by concerns for the legitimacy of those entire fields. Popular reporting on our pathologies in the New York Times (another institution struggling for legitimacy) could be instructive here.   Twenty years ago in 1991, Anne Matthews described the MLA conventions in the Magazine as tense but glamorous, zeroing in on a 34-year-old Andrew Ross, just tenured at Princeton, who was over turning staid paradigms by writing about “subjects ranging from Batman comics and computer hackers to new-age trance channeling and the semiotics of the Weather Channel.”  Matthews describes an eclectic gathering defined by high-profile stars like Ross on the one hand, and anxious but determined graduate students facing alarmingly unfavorable odds on the other. Matthews affectionately mocked the sessions them, describing them as ranging from the “sedate (“Encyclopedias as a Literary Genre”), the arcane (“Aspects of Iconicity in Some Indiana Hydronyms”) and the standing-room-only (“The Sodomitical Tourist”; “Victorian Underwear and Representations of the Female Body”).”  No pirates yet on the horizon, but close enough.  Recently, the Times has run more stories about the funding crisis–already a theme, actually, in the 1991 article, but noted less as a social issue than as a source of graduate student distress.  My unscientific survey, however, suggests in recent years fewer scandalized articles about underwear and instead a much more approving series of article on attempts to merge literary studies with cognitive science, computer science; medical science, evolutionary science; environmental science.  Perhaps there is a pattern here.  The Times even ran a forum entitled “Can Neuro Lit Crit Save the Humanities?”, although for many of the contributors the answer was, for various reasons, not really.  Still, Matthews clearly did not think that underwear could save the humanities; at best, the humanities could tolerate a little underwear as a side show between encyclopedias and iconicity.  This is not the place to debate the value of linking literature with science; my only point is to observe a recent impulse, which seems to be a less troubling to general public although certainly not without controversy, to align literary study less with the rogue fields of pirates, underwear, and sodomitical tourists than with other areas of the university that might not stand in as much need of saving.  Perhaps at this point, those pirates would only pull us down with their own leaky vessels.

Matthew’s iconic article linked pirate studies with the defunding of the humanities in only in attenuated ways: both raised the stakes for already-nervous graduate students, who somehow had to figure out a way to move beyond encyclopedias and iconicity.  Harsher critics like Chase, as mentioned, have claimed a directly destructive relationship.  But while Chase (who, parenthetically, offers his qualified support to the idea that ‘Neuro-Crit’ can save the humanities) and others have argued that pirate studies have led to the demise of English departments, I want to suggest instead that they have brought the past into the present in productive ways.  Pirate studies, in other words, might in fact have been a prescient move toward preservation, sharing this impulse with those who have gravitated toward different forms of science.  The more systematic studies that have defined the field in their own way assume a kind of value in the object of study, be it the novel, poetry, or drama, in a way that we can no longer take for granted.  At a key moment, pirate studies offered an alternative to the hermeneutics of suspicion, now itself under suspicion, and replaced it with a hermeneutics of curiosity and a history of the present. What is missing in analyses by Chase and even Matthews is the recognition that pirate studies might come across as weird, sensational, and even pandering, but in the best examples there is always a reason for the particular object.  They are objects that, legitimate or not, hold meaning for our own particular moment in history and that also, arguably, offer a more vivid picture of the past that was indeed once unspeakable.  The more persuasive examples of pirate studies turn around distinctions between outliers and ‘inliers’, asking us not to look at anomalies, but rather challenge us to recognize the extent to which pirates and their ilk, in fact, defined the period, and that all of those advocacies for moral order in the eighteenth century, beloved by an earlier era and skillfully analyzed for their ideological components by another, only make sense in an eighteenth century comprehended through its piratical subjects.  (Parenthetically, I think this is why Joe Roach’s work has been so effective: he took the ‘pirate studies’ model and worked it backwards, embracing and rendering explicit its implied presentism.)  The best of pirate studies has not shown, simply, that there were lots of pirates, or that pirates belonged to both the exploiters and the exploited; rather, it has shown how Defoe was actually more interesting than we thought, and in ways that we might care about right now.  The best of pirate studies—and this is what Chase and others fail to grasp—is ultimately a form of preservation that, unlike criticism in better times, knows it cannot assume the value of its object and therein, I believe, lies an important lesson for the future.

Twenty years ago, one of the most burning questions was whether or not we could use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.  Now, on a good day, we’re thinking that we might remodel the kitchen.  On a bad day, we’re fighting the bank against foreclosure.  The master’s house may have a few madwomen in the attic, but as Turley and other have shown, it also has some rum in the basement, a little sodomy in the bedroom, and a few lashes somewhere in the back of the closet.

advocating for the humanities, British-style

As a follow-up to Laura’s post, I wanted to pass along some links to responses from British scholars and academics to the proposed cuts in Humanities funding, first from Gavin Robinson’s history blog Investigations of a Dog, then from economist Will Davies’ Potlatch.  I could try to synthesize their very disparate analyses, but I think the most important convergence between the two is their emphasis on the importance of historical knowledge as a mode of critical reasoning.

In Davies’ terms, this amounts to a picture of social and economic relations that in their historical complexity cannot and should not be reduced to present-day market valuations, because any “form of justice [should be understood as] extremely path dependent and fragile. Different spheres of inequality [understood as rival elites and the values maintaining them] must be allowed to emerge organically, and then be kept strategically separate.” Davies’ concerns about Britain’s emulation of American neo-liberalism perhaps makes him a little too sanguine about the effects of these ideologies in the American context, but I think it’s necessary to conceive of academic values as he does, as working alongside marketplace values in a necessarily pluralistic ideological environment.

For Robinson, the conflicts between the humanities and the marketplace are perhaps more prosaic, but well worth keeping in the forefront:

It seems obvious to me that independent critical thought, textual analysis and the ability to construct and destroy arguments are all very important skills, not just for individuals but for society as a whole. It’s equally obvious why politicians, businessmen and journalists might be hostile to those skills. When humanities departments ask for funding, they’re effectively saying “please give us your money so we can teach people to see through your lies”. That’s going to be a hard sell, and probably explains why defenders of the humanities tend to use vague euphemisms rather than putting it so bluntly. The paradox is that the humanities have to cover up their main selling point so as not to appear threatening to the people with money and power, but that makes it easy to represent the humanities as useless.

So the problem faced by humanities scholars nowadays is not so much the uselessness of what they study, but the fact that their authentic use automatically puts one at odds with both the governmental and business interests that dominate the operations of the modern-day research university.

Davies is concerned, as I am, that this season’s political attacks on the university amount to a concerted political assault on the Enlightenment.  But to what extent does the modern research university reflect the values of Enlightenment?

DM