Start Defending the Humanities: A response to Simon During’s review of “The Humanities and Public Life”

Reading Simon During’s “Stop Defending the Humanities”, a review of Fordham UP’s The Humanities and Public Life (2014), left a bitter aftertaste in my mind. To quote a friend and T.S. Eliot, it left me with an overwhelming question: did During actually say anything in his article and, in the end, what was his point?

How should you presume, you ask. Oh do not ask “what is it”, but let us go and make our visit to the undergraduate and postgraduate classrooms where the students come and go, talking of Michelangelo–making a hundred indecisions and revisions of an art history argument.

Indeed, it is this rhetorical ambivalence that characterizes the scholarship (and apparently, the book reviews) of the twenty-first century. To take a leaf from Richard Mulcaster’s book and deface it with some Derrida, audiences are persuaded in the following manner:

*Ahem.*

1. Present an issue with its terms.

2. Deconstruct all terms in question.

3. Conclude with a utopian vision of the world where everybody gets along, regardless of race, class, or gender.

Following these three simple steps has several advantages:

a) Everybody will like you.

b) You’ll get invited to all sorts of parties and have all sorts of conversations with all sorts of attractive and interesting and powerful people with big houses.

c) No one will label you an extremist, a tyrant, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a xylophobe–though you may be called a decidophobe, because you have not

d) Made up your mind on the issue, but that doesn’t matter because nobody has an opinion anymore. Everybody who’s had the so-called privilege of reaching the upper echelons of society is often middle-class and middle-minded about everything from the main course to centre left, centre right politics. And that’s how you get ahead, that’s how you make friends. It’s not your job to change their minds! No no no young man, it’s your job to get through the system. Jump the hoops, write the papers, save the whales, & add some otiose flourishes to it all for good measure–you know, just to ensure the professionals think you’re “engaged”. It doesn’t matter whether you are or not. All that matters is that your body is in a chair that’s in a classroom that’s in a building called the University of Such and Such. And then you come out with your certificate and TA DA! Educated. Otiose Flourishes et al.

Stop Defending the Humanities? Stop Being Human is a better title: more honesty, less verbiage. And what does During mean by “academic literary criticism could fade while literature itself (and its effects on the world) prospered”? Out of all the banal, Derridian rehash this sentence is the most disturbing: it is, in effect, an endorsement of Orwellian unthinking; an unconscious, uncritical absorption of cultural norms–which includes the legacy of post-structuralist theory so bountifully bestowed on the West by Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Butler, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Kristeva. Anyone who properly understands deconstructionism knows that even deconstructionism itself can be deconstructed. Which is precisely the point: as useful as post-structuralism is–or rather, has been for dismantling every single previously unquestioned institution (patriarchy, colonialism, sexuality)–post-structuralism cannot be the foundation of any society grounded in reality.

I have a weekly ritual of going for dinner here in Cambridge, with a friend of mine who’s a historian and prospective law student. We’re members of a dying breed of arts students who enjoy wasting our time with microfilms and history, who like long walks to Grantchester in the rain and Faber & Faber poetry. Sometimes we go to the adc, just to feel cool. But above and beyond all of that, we like the humanities, which is why we are in them. We’re humanists, and we’re human. “Start Defending the Humanities” could serve as a title for most of our dinner conversations, which revolve around our frustrations with the current intellectual climate: our dissatisfaction with post-structuralist theories and methodologies; the rhetorical ambivalence of articles and classes; and humanists’ refusal to pose and answer the question

What does it mean to be a humanist?

Not that this isn’t a difficult question to answer, and of course there have been several attempts. Yet all of these attempts are founded on the Three Pillars of Post-structuralist Wisdom:

1. Present an issue with its terms.

The Humanities are currently underfunded and undervalued.

2. Deconstruct all terms in question.

Humanities (defined as):

Everything which is not science.

Everything which is not science is underfunded.

Everything which is underfunded is undervalued.

Everything which is undervalued is based on values.

Ergo, “Humanities” can be defined as an outdated system of values.

Values, System of (defined as): Entirely relative, and always based on structures of power and historical contingency, which create the illusion of stability but ultimately don’t exist.

3. Conclude with a utopian vision of the world where everybody gets along, regardless of race, class, or gender.

Let’s all become scientists! Anyone for a pony ride?

And still, no one will stand up and say

This.

This is what it means to be a humanist.

This is what it means to be a democrat.

I love the Western Canon.

I love democracy.

I love my country.

The centre IS the centre.

My favourite word: essence. No scare quotes.

Qualitative is just a word I use when I’m too afraid

to stake my argument on the evidence.

Don’t you love the beauty of those lines?

The colour, the cadence.

I don’t read secondary sources.

I read poetry.

Let’s talk about poetry.

Let’s talk about words.

Let’s go back to how it all started.

Where it all began.

Why we’re here.

Why do we call ourselves

Historians,

Artists,

Critics,

Humanists.

That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.

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