omitting culture

Ever since I saw Nicholas Dames’s excellent n+1 essay about defending the humanities, I’ve been trying to think of a response that went beyond, “What Dames said.”  And Dames’s essay, a review of Nussbaum’s, Menand’s, and Castle’s latest books, was so good on the habitual embarrassment of the literature scholar (e.g., “becoming an academic in the humanities means becoming humiliatingly prosaic about the things one loves”), that I was tempted to leave it at that, especially since I’ve already written a few pieces about the dual crises in higher education and literary studies myself.  (In the meantime, those interested in this topic should seek out Aaron Bady’s big-screen (i.e., economic) treatment of these issues over at zunguzungu.)

Rather than try to mount yet another full-scale defense, I’d like to focus on one of the recurrent challenges faced by would-be defenders of the humanities, which is how to justify these activities in terms that are persuasive to a more general public, but still recognizable to their practitioners and audiences.  In other words, how to retain something of the appeal and distinctiveness of the humanities while addressing those who don’t already live and work there?

So, the humanities (pl.).* What are they good for?  We can name lots of different reasons for reading, studying, or promoting them, and these tend to be very familiar, but they also turn out not to have much relation to one another, if not cancel one another out.

Dames notes, for example, how Martha Nussbaum’s latest book vacillates between an assumption of their fostering “useful intellectual qualities” or in other words, “skills,” and advocating them for their “critique of the instrumentality of skills-as such.”  The contradiction, or at least the gap, between these two views is left unaddressed and remains unbridged in her or most other arguments like it. So decide: do we want the humanities to be useful, or do we want them, and ourselves, to be anti-useful, or use-less, or to actively militate against all the ways in which we and others have been used?  Or do we want all of these options all at the same time?  (If you answered “yes” to the final question, you are truly a devotee of the humanities . . . . )

By tactically emphasizing a partial but important strain of the humanities as a Deweyan philosophy of “freedom and education,” Nussbaum leaves to one side her former praise of literary studies.  More damagingly, I think, she has also left undefended the anti-humanist strains of humanities scholarship and literature from the past century (e.g., Marx, Nietzsche, Wilde, Adorno, Brecht, Genet, Fanon, Foucault, Butler, Anzaldua, etc. etc.) that seems crucial to its conflicted status in the present.

Should we treat them as the enemy of moral uplift and conventional values (which has itself become a conventional value) or as a resource for intellectual or moral reflection (which can also be transformed into an unreflective attitude)? Can we feel with certainty this is all they are?

These anti-conventional, “immoralist” dimensions are the elements that Nussbaum identifies as part of the humanities’ mission of fostering “alterity and sympathy,” though perhaps in a way that is less literal and mimetic than what Nussbaum had in mind.  This is because the reflective and unreflective versions of the humanities coexist so visibly, perhaps even building upon and reinforcing one another. (Both Edith Hamilton and Anne Carson can be regarded as representative readers and writers working within the scholarly traditions of the humanities.)

In my view, Nussbaums’s omission, though tactical, concedes too much to her opponents, and leaves us with a version of the humanities that would puzzle the creators of Timon of Athens or the History of the Pelopennesian Wars (not that they understood what they were doing as “humanities”).  In my view, we cannot omit these anti-social, anti-mimetic dimensions of the humanities without also losing the most valuable and distinctive aspects of its thought, its dual emphasis on historicization and moral complexity, which are just two more routes towards “alterity and sympathy.”

What my laundry list of problematic figures (Marx through Anzaldua . . . .)  reveals is a shared interest in “culture” that nonetheless leads us away from any notions of a unitary, unantagonistic “culture” that could be experienced equally by all its members, or transmitted unproblematically across time.  This new view of “culture” as plural, contested, or conflictual helped to produce “cultural studies,” but it also effectively dismantled much of the language that literary critics once used to justify literature.

The past now seems too plural, the present too conflicted, for literary studies to be valued and taught in such terms, and this shift represents the triumph of both Theory and the Canon Wars in our now plural conceptions of literature and culture.

So this entire part of the argument is omitted.  By some sort of unspoken agreement, both Nussbaum and the anti-humanist wing of the humanities have detached the humanities from their once-dominant social function, but whereas the earlier movements devised their own alternative narratives of cultural transmission, Nussbaum’s defense of the humanities no longer relies on this dimension.

Instead, we have Nussbaum’s rather bland but accurate observation quoted by Dames: “Innovation . . . requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative; literature and the arts cultivate these capacities.”  No argument there.  But does “innovation” really describe the deepest, most fundamental values embodied by these forms of writing or experience?

Dames writes,

Active cultivation of useful intellectual qualities — not, it should be noted, instruction in that all-too-troubling cognate, culture. This argument of Nussbaum’s steers entirely and successfully clear of the implied elitism of “culture”; anyone who calls the book elitist simply hasn’t read it. The problem is that this business-friendly argument sits uneasily next to her broader argument about alterity and sympathy. And in the gap between the two arguments lies the humanistic dilemma. Do the humanities teach “skills,” or do they lead us to critique the instrumentality of skills-as-such? Do they trouble our relation to economic activity, or do they equip us to be ideal technocratic employees?

My suspicion is that “culture” names the aspect of the humanities that encourages people to experience the alterity of other times and places, which represents something we already possess but perhaps also want to possess more fully, in a more conscious and reflective form.  Culture, in other words, represents not merely identity but desire, a desire for something we don’t securely possess but need to learn how to acquire.  For this reason,  we need not shy away from the term “skills,” either.

One of the oddities of most of these discussions is their silence about the classroom, which is after all where most of us experience the humanities, whether as students or as scholars and teachers.  That is where the humanities live, and where they have historically lived: as a pedagogical program experienced by people as they move through an educational system and to whatever lies beyond.

So why not detach the notion of “skills” from a reductive, instrumental notion of education as vocational training, and think about it instead as part of a student’s open-ended pursuit of mastery and autonomy, whatever her eventual employer or situation might be?  This opens up the notion of “culture” as “transmission” again, but not in a mimetic fashion.  Instead, “culture” represents a form of reinvention or summoning-forth on the part of the student, a drama in which a student’s drive to mastery is at least as important as what she is attempting to learn.

And “skills,” in the sense of the mastery of the scholar who knows her sources, knows the arguments surrounding her sources, knows the debates that have organized her field, and knows how to combine and direct these for her own rhetorical purposes, are not what scholars leave behind at an early stage of their training, but represent the essence of scholarship.  And why not announce that learning these forms of thoughtful reading, systematic investigation, and reflective writing are potentially valuable not just for professional scholars, but for anyone who would want to understand their own time and place, or contribute to the understanding of others?  This kind of argument might satisfy practitioners of the humanities, and give better insight to those who may or may not enter into their study.



*While I write this, I am mindful of Greg Afinogenov ‘s warning in an earlier discussion not to conflate literature with the whole of the humanities, which after all can include modern and classical languages, philosophy, history, the visual and performing arts, and so forth. It’s just that the elite academics who have the prestige to publish these kinds of defenses (e.g., Dames, Nussbaum, Menand, and Garber) often do so with the aim of preserving a liberal arts curriculum that stresses its relation to some notion of the past, its most valued artifacts and its traditions.  Hence the need to align the literary scholar, at least rhetorically, with the (love of the) Past.  These are all obviously unstable alliances, but for the moment I need to engage with these writers in their own terms.

7 responses to “omitting culture

  1. Laura Rosenthal

    Great post!
    When I read the Dames essay, I was thinking along similar lines about the missing piece in all of this. Yet Menand and Nussbaum at least actually do write about the classroom, so it is not exactly missing. I think the problem is not so much that the classroom is overlooked, but that the relationship between “the humanities” and undergraduate study of the humanities is a strange one in many of these explorations. Sometimes it is taken to be exactly the same thing; something it is taken to be different. No amount of budget cutting will end “the humanities.” Last semester when teaching Robinson Crusoe, we spent a lot of time talking about why he keeps working on his pots. His first pot is functional, but he is bothered by the fact that it doesn’t look good, so he keeps working on it. This sort of aristry will not go away: there will always be people working on their pots to make them beautiful or dramatically hideous. But this pot-making is different from the state of Maryland paying me to work through the significance of this scene with undergraduates, many of whom could not afford private education. What I like about your solutions is that it bridges this gap which many defenses of the humanities don’t attend to. But I think there is a difference between insisting on the value of the humanities and seeking public support (in the broades sense) for teaching and learning in the humanities that tends to go unaccounted for.

    • Dave Mazella


      To make sure I’m following you, are you saying that the humanities in the sense of non-academic reading and writing will continue regardless, but that humanities teaching in the professional sense relies on the political will to sustain things like departments and universities? I agree about this, but I also think that the defenses usually leave out the supposedly unreflective, pedagogical side of what we do, because those represent what Castle/Dames identify as the “prosaic” side of our work, the part that causes embarrassment and bathos, since it’s not Pope or Swift, but undergraduate essays on Pope or Swift. The unspoken assumption is that no one would be impressed by what our students do, but only what we on the professional side manage to do.

      My thought is that we need to integrate the formerly compartmentalized aspects of the humanities research and teaching, because these represent our most promising points of contact with the public. But the defense needs to go forward on many fronts. Does that make sense? DM

      • Laura Rosenthal

        Yes, that’s exactly what I mean, and it tends to be the missing link in these discussions, in which the relationship between “defending the humanities” and “supporting the teaching of the humanities in higher education” is often not made clear, or just assumed. Nobody is really attacking the humanities, are they? I don’t sense this as a serious problem. No one is saying, for example, that young people should stop reading novels. The problem, as you say, is the lack of political will to sustain the study of the humanities in higher education. I certainly have no objection to scholars articulating the important of (for example) reading novels (as you say, go forward on many fronts). But the steps between such a defense and support for higher education cannot be assumed. So I agree that an integrated approach is crucial.

      • Dave Mazella

        Laura, there are specific, competitive contexts in which the interests of the Humanities are pitted against other disciplines: the first is in the externally/internally funded research competition that takes place within research universities, which we’ve already discussed. The issue there is not so much open attacks against the Humanities as the kind of permatemping, refusal to fund tenured lines, and yearly shrinking we’ve seen over the past 10-20 years. This is an internal argument we’ve been losing, often because we are not considered the important players in the university’s own organization.

        The other context is more open and public, and it involves discussions of surveys like these, which come from people graduated from fairly elite schools and programs. The notion of choosing a major solely on the basis of which major produces the most earning power immediately after college seems reasonable, if crass, but student loan debt enforces this kind of short-term perspective. So the attitudes taking place outside the university, among students, employers, and the community, affect the relative power of the Humanities in all but the most elite institutions. I think these kinds of discussions matter, even as I deplore the increasingly vocational attitude being directed toward higher ed. To me, this simply reinforces the notion that we have a two-tier educational system, with the liberal arts only relevant and available to a tiny percentage of students, while everyone in the public higher education system has to be content with narrow, vocational training. This to me feels like one of the most damaging attitudes literature and other fields need to address, because it saps the political support we’ve been discussing.

        UPDATE: Aaron has once again anticipated this discussion, with his own post about the report and its implications.

  2. Preach on, Brother Dave, PREACH ON.

    I’ve been contemplating a career change (from teaching college lit. to health care), and last summer started taking courses to that end. The first hour I spent in a 100-level Nutrition class taught at my institution had the paradoxical effect of renewing my commitment to the liberal arts. We had been encouraged to prepare for class not by reading the textbook (which was not required anyway), but by printing out the Powerpoint slides that the instructor had supplied in advance. To encourage active listening, she had left the occasional word or bullet point blank–that way students would have to pay attention to lecture in order have a complete set of notes to study for the multiple-choice exams. I looked at the 70-plus students sharing the room with me, and thought “oh my God, this is what these students think education is.”

    Whatever it is we in the humanities do (and I’m still trying to figure that out) and however poorly we do it, we give students an education that they don’t get by filling in the blanks on Powerpoint slides. Which is why I’m a bit puzzled, just as you are Dave, by the short shrift given to the classroom in these humanities manifestos.

    Every one of us who stands in front of a gen. ed classroom each semester has a captive audience of future citizens and taxpayers ready to have it explained to them why what we do matters. Yet this is the part of our work that gets routinely farmed out to contingent faculty and grad students and for which there exist no institutional incentives for sustained ongoing conversation, collaboration, or innovation. The questions of what we should be teaching in such settings, how best to do it, and why rarely get explored in any depth. And then we wonder why the public at large doesn’t take our work seriously.

  3. The English Gal

    A deeply thoughtful piece Dave. I really appreciated it. And I love the reference Laura made to Robinson and his pots. I’ll have to draw attention to it when I teach the novel next semester.

  4. Dave Mazella

    @Kirstin, I think the more vocational and “training” oriented the curriculum, the more appalling the teaching. And what Bousquet calls the “permatemping” of this part of the curriculum has had corrosive effects on the gen ed curriculum. And if you want to see the consequences of this shift in areas like business schools and education schools, just read Academically Adrift. But faculty need to recognize their own long-term interest in this movement to improve undergrad education.

    @English gal, thanks.