A new humanities?


MIT has begun to promote something it calls the “New Humanities,” and to advertise the “Initiatives” associated with this field. To judge on the basis of the projects under this banner, research in the “new humanities” involves the production and use of digital tools, and/or has as its object of analysis some aspects of contemporary digital culture. The campaign is no doubt partly intended for students interested in pursuing careers in computing, of which there are of course many here, and no doubt for the parents of these students (and prospective students) as well. The specific initiatives are all of them valuable; I’m an active contributor to at least one, MIT’s Annotation Studio.

What constitutes “new humanities” work is somewhat scantly defined. There is for instance no compelling reason why the term should not refer to many exciting and innovative kinds of humanistic inquiry being carried out today, including but not limited to digital humanities and new media studies. If the “new humanities” is understood to include the humanities as it is carried out on a computer, moreover, how is this field to be distinguished from every conceivable project in the humanities today? Finally, who is the “new human” that will be served by the “new humanities”? It is true that the sensorium changes over the course of human history — Marx teaches us this; so does Walter Benjamin (both significant producers of knowledge in the humanities). Though they carry more smartphones and tablet computers today, however, students have not notably changed physical form in the years I’ve been teaching.

I go on at length about this rather trivial piece of nomenclature in order to underscore the point – so self-evident as to seem not worth mentioning, were the point not also sometimes contested – that new questions, topics and approaches arise in all sorts of humanities research, all the time. As Natalia Cecire recently pointed out in an excellent and widely-circulated blog post, the humanities are continually producing new objects and modes of knowledge. The humanities do this, Natalia observes, much to the disappointment of those who would like to see the humanities dismissed as a relic, an obsolete pursuit, a merely preservationist field. Myths of its moribundity are just that; they are myths propagated through ignorance or willful blindness to what the humanities actually do – to the work of the humanities inside and outside classroom and university walls. Through a sort of learned ignorance about the humanities, Natalia writes, some describe it as dedicated to producing “old, unchanging narratives about the usual suspects” – those usual suspects being the Great Books, the best that has been thought and said, the dead White men (with maybe a few women and persons of color thrown in). Natalia rightly notes that the truth is entirely different: “at the university level, the humanities, like every other field, is a field in the making. New knowledge is being created all the time.”

Natalia’s post is really great; she builds a better case for the timeliness and urgency of work in the humanities than I can hope to do here. In this post I will do little more than pose a question about the “new humanities,” both as an object of institutional advertising and as a condition for innovation in humanistic research: Is knowledge in the humanities progressive? Does research in the humanities develop incrementally in the way we understand the sciences to do? The question has preoccupied some humanists in the past (I’ll touch on a few of these in a moment), but seems for the most part to have fallen out of fashion. Yet an unexamined assumption that the humanities – branches of them, at least – are not progressive, that theoretical and scholarly movements lead nowhere, has nevertheless survived as an occasional topic of complaint.

Are the humanities progressive? More may still hang on this question, or on tacit answers to this question, than we have suspected.

When in 1814 William Hazlitt asked whether the arts are progressive, the answer was decisively no. The arts are absolutely different from the sciences on this ground, Hazlitt asserted, for the notion of progress “applies to science, not to art.” Hazlitt perceives plainly how the question is stacked against the arts. More than that, though, Hazlitt rejects the premise of the question as a comparison of apples to oranges. To pose the question is to misunderstand the specificity of the objects under consideration. The idea that the arts like the sciences could be progressive is “a common error, which has grown up…from transferring an analogy of one kind to something quite distinct, without thinking of the nature of the things.”

Hazlitt’s inquiry of course concerns the “fine arts” – painting, sculpture, music, poetry, etc. – and not the humanities as that field is typically understood to involve the interpretation of these objects (and more). Indeed we may be surprised to find that Hazlitt places the craft of interpretation in the progressive camp, including biblical criticism alongside chemistry, geometry, and astronomy among those fields of study that have shown progressive improvement over time. In general, though, Hazlitt imagines a impassable border between science (progressive) and the genius of the arts, and seems if anything to identify literary or art criticism with the latter. Hazlitt’s distinction seems too stark today, as does his assertion that “genius” is essentially and absolutely unquantifiable. The arts and humanities do of course regularly make use of “the advantages which time and circumstances have placed within our reach,” though Hazlitt regards these as at best incidental to the perfection of the arts.

Iris Murdoch takes up a discipline-specific version of the question of whether the humanities are progressive in the opening paragraph of her 1964 essay, “The Idea of Perfection.” Like Hazlitt, Murdoch begins by acknowledging the tone of irritation and complaint with which people frequently observe a lack of progress in philosophical work. And like Hazlitt, she concedes the point immediately.

It is sometimes said, either irritably or with a certain satisfaction, that philosophy makes no progress. It is certainly true, and I think this is an abiding and not a regrettable characteristic of the discipline, that philosophy has in a sense to keep trying to return to the beginning: a thing which is not at all easy to do. There is a two-way movement in philosophy, a movement towards the building of elaborate theories, and a move back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts. McTaggart says that time is unreal, Moore replies that he has just had his breakfast. Both these aspects of philosophy are necessary to it.

Whereas Hazlitt insists on a stark contrast between the timeless arts and the timeliness of the sciences, Murdoch argues that the discipline of philosophy necessarily moves in two directions at once: its movement is both progressive, generating new concepts and pointing out new directions of thought, and regressive or recursive, continually returning to its source and to the encounter with “simple and obvious facts.” These operations – McTaggart’s skepticism, Moore’s common sense – are inseparable and equally essential to the constitution of knowledge in the discipline.

That the humanities, in addition to being characterized by ceaseless innovation, also involves the recovery or rediscovery of things long known may be one of the most difficult things to explain or “defend” about it. Another way of saying this is that the humanities seems so frequently to require defense because of the complicated and seemingly contradictory course that routes to research discovery can take. Murdoch and Hazlitt both identify in the question of whether the arts and humanities are progressive an undercurrent of resentment, hostility or complacency towards these pursuits. A distinctly negative attitude surrounds things of the past; we are a people who hold our breath as we pass graveyards and cemeteries. One reason for the distaste seems clear enough: the past is a principle of drag on the present, or more precisely on the present’s imagined futurity. I remember that in Wisconsin the roads designated “rustic roads” had signs plastered all over with the slogan “a positive step backward.” The seemingly unnecessary adjective “positive” struck me as an odd, funny-in-a-vaguely-sad-way acknowledgement. The emphasis is there to forestall anticipated objections that to “step backward” is exactly the wrong thing to do.

I find these thoughts about whether the humanities are progressive have led me to ask a very different set of questions about humanities research – not concerning its timelessness exactly, but about its recursivity, its attraction to the past, to the ordinary and obvious. Engaging inquisitively and productively with the world around it, work in the humanities reaches to the past (as does my colleague Peter Donaldson’s Global Shakespeares project or the innovative project Visualizing Cultures), often bringing back with it stuff that nobody thinks of, or hardly, but which everybody somehow already knows. The humanities moves culture – it directs ideas and shapes history, is a reliably progressive endeavor – partly because it moves us to repeated contemplation of (and confrontation with) these “simple and obvious facts.” In this kind of innovative research, the “new humanities” will not be found in contradiction with an “old.”