Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Back to the grind

In Profession 2005, a publication of the Modern Language Association, Harvard English professor Louis Menand writes the following in response to an article about string theory that conotates the universe to a bank card:

If you say that the meaning of a poem is indeterminate, you are accused of posing a threat to Western values--often by people who never read poetry. But if you say that the universe is like an ATM card, you get the Nobel Prize. How did humanists get painted into a cultural corner such that everything that a social or natural scientist says that is counterintuitive receives public genuflection, but literature professors are expected to do nothing but reaffirm common sense? ("Dangers Within and Without" 10-11)
Faculty members in science and in social science departments tend to regard humanists as reflexively oppositional to what they do and, therefore, as easy to discount. This perception is founded mainly on ignorance. The summaries of the state of ideas in the humanities in books like E.O. Wilson's Consilence and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate are appallingly misinformed, but the ignorance is depressing, since it indicates that humanists have almost completely failed at explaining what they do and why it offers as good a return on social investment as genetics or economics. Humanists feed this perception by reciting predicatable critiques of the claims of science and social science. Our response to anything is, "It's more complicated." They assert X, and we say, "But it's overdetermined." They assert Y, and we say, "But there's a contradiction." They assert Z, and we say, "But the concept is socially constructed or historically contested." Humanities departments have turned into the little boy who cries, "Difference!" Humanities professors are right: there is difference, it always is more complicated, concepts are constructed. But the role of the humanities cannot be that of problematizing this and calling into question that. Humanities professors need to construct alternative paradigms, and if those paradigms are built merely from some notion of the literary, they will blow right over. (13-14)
The humanities are the study of life in its cultural dimension, which happens to be the dimension in which every human being actually operates. You can study life in its biological and in its social scientific dimension--that is, you can look at the genetic causes of behavior or at the mehtods by which individuals calculate their political and economic interests--only if you hold culture constant. Culture is no an add-on to the biological and sociological conditions of existence; it is constitutive of species identity. Culture is the medium in which we act, and it is, from a purely rational point of view, always a distorting medium. Culture is why paradigms of social and scientific theory don't work, why people tend never to do what social theory predicts they will do. Kant once said that humanity is a crooked timber from which nothing straight can be cut. That's what humanists study. We study warp. (14-15.)
In the end evolutionary biologists like Dawkins consider human culture as simply and outgrowth of evolutionary needs. Religion for Dawkins (as he states in the God Delusion is simply an aberration of some behavior that allows for the species to procreate. He is uncertain what that behavior is, but that's how he sees the world. It is not a far stretch to extend his interpretation of religion to all things cultural. They are all aberrations of, to be blunt, getting laid and having lots of babies. This reductive approach to the world, is what turns people off to science, as we can see in Menand's remarks. Ultimately people, when put under the microscope, squirm and say "but that's not me."

Perhaps that is the heart of the conflict between Humanities and Science: one field wishes to explore the rich complexity of human existence and the other wants to reduce it to data with little chance for misinterpretation in hard and fast theory.

Ah, if it were really that easy.

Whoops--there we go again!

(Cross-posted on my academic blog. Shh: don't tell anyone!)


  1. I'm glad you're enjoying that issue of Profession. I like the Menand essay. And like you I basically agree with it. I wish I had remembered it when I was at the ALA conference in Newport Beach. I attended a presentation by a guy who argued we needed to become more scientific in our approach to teaching literature, to draw on scientific accounts of determinism, etc. in teaching Naturalism. I should have said something, but I didn't. I wanted to say something like Menand said. Literature isn't after scientifically valid accounts of agency. It seeks, rather, to portray emotionally valid reports on experience. Or something like that.

  2. I encourage you to post similar comment upon my academic blog, MB.

    I've written before why I keep this site so separate from that place, and will do so again, as I've come to new findings on that front.

    My only question to your ALA colleague would be, how the hell do we do that?

    Back to the meat of the discussion, however, there are scientists who are not reductionists. Most notably physicists. I had a snarky line about that in the post, but I removed it, knowing that the reason physicists are respected and Humanities folks are not is a very complex issue.

    Dawkins sees all of us folks who explore the complexity of life and being as modern-day priests of the unknowable god. He hates that. We're nothing but bone shakers to him: no better than the overt bone shakers.

    Funny thing is, anti-foundationalists (which I am not saying anyone in particular is) agree whole-heartedly with the basic premise that Dawkins espouses. Thinking in terms of evolutionary biology, perhaps he assumes they are stepping in on his turf and will get more science chicks because they are more well-spoken than him.

    If everything is about fucking, in other words, than isn't his science about it too?

    Ba dum dum.

  3. Anonymous10:07 PM

    It does seem that humanities people are often reduced (sometimes justifiably) to the "difference!" police. While this can become tiresome, somebody has to call bullshit when scientists (or whomever) go too far (I thought--hoped--logical positivism was dead..?). Why prioritize the scientific, or even the philosophical/argument-form over narrative or poetry or painting or music? Is there inherently more value in one vs. the other(s)? Is there presently more MONEY in one vs. the others? Over time I definitely find more value in the latter than the former--I think this is because I am ever more interested in living my life than analyzing/quantifying/reducing the fuck out of it (and everybody elses). At some (not too distant) point, scientific 'knowledge,' as nifty as it can be, fails to capture the living (i.e. countless psychological studies on the minutiae of personal relationships [with accompanying book for sale] that has for centuries been captured by various literary forms [but not PROVEN!]...

    John T.