Literature, Politics

A third defense of the humanities

In recent posts, I’ve been trying to imagine defenses of the humanities that answer the question: what can the humanities do that the sciences can’t?

So here’s my third idea. On the one hand, it’s the first of my defenses that’s consistent with the usual sophisticated humanities scholar’s view that the aesthetic establishes its own values, that art is an end in itself, that “poetry makes nothing happen” (in Auden’s words) and shouldn’t be required to make anything happen — even wisdom or the broadening of the soul.

On the other hand, this defense is still likely to infuriate sophisticated humanities scholars, because it’s based on an appeal to national pride.

As is often the case, Helen Vendler got there before me:

In the future, will the United States be remembered with admiration? Will we be thanked for our stock market and its investors? For our wars and their consequences? … Future cultures will be grateful to us for many aspects of scientific discovery, and for our progress (such as it has been) toward more humane laws. … But science, the law, and even ethics are fields in motion, constantly surpassing themselves. To future generations our medicine will seem primitive, our laws backward, even our ethical convictions narrow.

The same cannot be said of our art.

It is a truism that unlike all scientific and technological advances, works of art are not rendered obsolete by future progress. We continue reading the literary creations of thirteenth century Italy long after the most advanced medical and engineering treatises of the era have been discarded. Every time a new scientific textbook is published, the old one is thrown away, because we have no use for it except as an object of historical curiosity. But we continue reading poems, no matter how archaic. In fact, we value their archaism.

In the words of Ezra Pound: Literature is the news that stays news.

To the extent that philosophy is in the business of making statements that remain true regardless of any empirical discovery, it is even more immune to supersession. It is the news that must stay news — or at least tries to be. (Of course, this is also true of math, which isn’t exactly one of the humanities. But it’s not a science either, in the sense that it doesn’t make empirical predictions that could turn out to be wrong.)

Consider Carthage. Wasn’t the Carthaginian empire at one time the most powerful in the Western Mediterranean, or something like that? I’m not sure, because no one other than historians knows much of anything about Carthage today. There’s the name “Hannibal” — one name, like the names of other great warlords who have achieved a lasting glory by committing more atrocities than anyone else around at the time. Who cares about the culture of Carthage, despite all of its commercial and military power, its technological marvels in manufacturing and agriculture?

I suspect that one of the primary reasons for our neglect of the memory of Carthage is that, unlike Greece and Rome, Carthage didn’t produce literature. They didn’t make much art. The sources of our knowledge of Carthage are written in Greek and Latin, not Punic.

The United States is at no risk of becoming the next Carthage. From the Declaration of Independence through the Velvet Underground, there’s never been a risk that we’d be remembered only for our factories and bombs. But if those in power today, including those with power over the budgets of universities, want America in the twenty-first century to be remembered and admired rather than forgotten or scorned, the humanities, including the creative arts, will still be needed. Military and economic strength will not be enough. STEM education will not be enough. It’s a great irony of history, but somehow artists — these relatively powerless figures, often outsiders, people who control no budgets, have no “direct reports,” and often receive little recognition while they work — somehow end up with a great deal of power over whether and how an entire nation or period of national history is remembered. Or at least that’s how it’s often worked in the past.

Whatever humanities scholars think about the virtue or vice of national pride, it exists and is a powerful force, including among those who will decide the institutional fate of the humanities. It would be a shame for defenders of the humanities to unilaterally disarm by refusing to draw attention to the central role of the humanities in a nation’s legacy.

Maybe most humanities scholars today don’t care about the Ozymandian quest for a nation to be remembered, and maybe they’re right not to care. Personally, I share Richard Rorty’s view — more recently adopted in part by Martha Nussbaum, who used to reject it — that national identity and pride are prerequisites to national self-improvement, and that nationalism, despite its risks, can be a valuable rallying point for shared goals in a way that cosmopolitanism never can be. Humanity as a whole is just too broad of a category to rally around (NB: at least until the aliens come). A nation, on the other hand, is something that people can actually care about and identify with viscerally. Americans can take pride in Johnny Cash and the First Amendment, barbecue and the Grand Canyon, in a way that no human being can take pride in the accomplishments of all other human beings simply by virtue of belonging to the same species, or occupying the same earth.

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6 thoughts on “A third defense of the humanities

  1. Pingback: Yet another Op-Ed. on the crisis in the humanities | Against the Logicians

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