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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Rewriting the Humanities Story: A Piece of Missing Theory

I don't see how we're going to survive the 21st century without much better human relations. I do see ideas about better human relations as depending on humanities expertise. Silicon Valley and Wall Street don't agree with me, and put their faith in programming. Yuvai Harari, the historian of all human history, doesn't agree either. He was on KQED's Forum talking about his new book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. There was really only one lesson in his radio answers: the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

It was odd because Harari has a real historian's sense of specificity, which helped him reject callers' claims for trends that will be uniform across the planet. For example, he said that guaranteed minimum income might address jobs lost to robots in Germany and Japan but not in Bangladesh and Honduras. I waited for a reference to building global planning agencies through upgraded capacities to do trans-cultural cooperation. It didn't come.

Again and again, Harari placed whatever hope he had in "hacking the human." Code had to overwrite human factors. Algorithmic progress was inevitable and AI was here to accelerate it. He knew that only a minority of the world population would benefit, but he said nothing about how to solve the political and cultural problems so tech could help overcome inequality rather than making it worse.

I was listening to him while reading Facebook posts about the new MLA Job List. One friend counted a total of 16 tenure-track jobs in African American literature-- for a country with 7000 colleges. The survival of much if not all of the humanities is at risk. But in Harari's model, that wouldn't slow down progress.

This KQED Harari is wrong-- the world absolutely needs what humanities scholars know--about languages, the history of cultural conflicts, the communal effects of every kind of identity in their startling fluidity, the psycho-cultural impacts of economic inequality, for starters. So what can we do, besides what we've been doing, which is accepting austerity?

Here are two things.

The first is confronting the Great Mistake from within humanities-based theory. That mistake was to retreat from defining academic knowledge as a public good and restructuring it for market forces. Economists generally define public goods too narrowly, as non-excludable and non-rivalrous. We got confused about higher ed because we exclude people from higher education all the time and make them rivals to get the really good versions of it, so maybe it was an individual private good, which is what colleges say to prospective students when they recruit them.

In reality, about half of the total value of college is nonmarket, indirect, and/or social-- according to the one guy who heroically tried to add it up. This is what the idea of public goods expresses. All sorts of educational effects are what economists call "nonpecuniary." They have a value that is greater than what individuals receive as a private return, and often don't have any equivalent monetary quantity. (See Stage 1 of TGM for more on this -- now in paper!)

These effects are well known, and everybody from students to business executives call for basic ones like critical thinking, problem solving, oral communication skills, or a capacity for lifetime learning. And yet by measuring their value as a pecuniary return like an increased salary, we systematically neglect the nonpecuniary effects. We underinvest in them, or in other words subject them to market failure, with some fairly obvious social results.

Many other nonpecuniary effects are equally important. In lit crit we roll our eyes when a radio show host talks about how reading novels teaches empathy. Yet it is broadly true. It is also true that empathy is a public good that can change the world. It's hard to imagine international political progress without a very big increase in cross-religious empathy, and on a global scale.

The troubles of the humanities flow inevitably from the decline cycle that this retreat from public goods set up. That retreat induces not only the bad accounting I just mentioned but also a shift to the relentless pursuit of non-state funds, nearly all of which is returns-tested, meaning it's not allowed just to benefit people and society generally. The veneration of revenues with calculable returns discourages universities from having enough internal, institutional funds to support their noncommercial research (TGM Stage 2). That includes all the research that cannot be justified with claims to future revenues through the sale of a license or product or service. "Small science" doesn't get properly funded. And the humanities fields are barely funded at all. All sorts of research outputs simply never exist. The same is true for the nonpecuniary / social benefits they might have produced.

The decline cycle also routinizes "limited learning." It's really hard to grasp something like the big picture of a culture's history by grasping the main lines of hundreds of years of literary output. It also takes a long time. Maybe it takes 10,000 hours, but we teach literary history and everything else in 40 hour chunks, giving in a 10-week term as much direct intellectual contact as some college sports require over 10 days. Private return-on-investment calculations will always underfund real learning, leading us to replace mastery as a B.A goal with something like mechanical competence in written communication for most students (TGM Stage 6). MOOCs and other short-cuts fill the gap. Since we haven't detailed the nonpecuniary benefits, politicians want professors to teach twice as many students for today's workplace tasks. But deep learning probably means teaching half as much, more intensely, with more than twice as many professors. The point here is not a particular number, but that the private-good model keeps us from even admitting the losses to both individuals and society of limited learning, to say nothing of doing something about it.

The second issue is why Theory (our HT from last time) hasn't done much with institutional and economic value. I remember, around 25 years ago, when the Village Voice was really a thing, that the critic Scott Malcomson asked why Derridean theorists weren't also critiquing the premises of finance capital. We never did answer that question, or just actually do it. Now the answer seems to me to be a lack of intellectual confidence.

The Ronell case has produced some examples. In a fairly nasty piece, the eminent modernist Marjorie Perloff spent much of her commentary saying how worthless Ronell's kind of theory is. She didn't say Ronell argued A and B on topic C when a good HT person would have argued X and Y on topic Z. She made the whole field seem empty.

To make matters worse, she concluded, "the focus . . . should shift, as it has at many institutions, to undergraduate education, for it is the undergraduates who will determine the future course of a discipline like Comp Lit." It's completely true that the drop in major numbers does need to be reversed with better undergrad curriculae. But Perloff's message is that lit crit doesn't produce the kind of worldly knowledge that requires doctoral training and tenure-track jobs. Backing away from humanities doctoral education will make the whole situation worse.

Equally senior Germanist Bernd did the same thing in a belated score-settler with Ronell (see the Salon translation of the original German): he produced such a wall-to-wall trashing of Ronell's legacy as authoritarian in thought and deed that he trashed the entire field.

I thought this might just the the message from people who had already hated HT in the 1980s. But then there's this passage from NYU grad student Andrea Chu's powerful piece, which got relayed enough times for me to ponder it carefully.
Structural problems are problems because real people hurt real people. You cannot have a cycle of abuse without actually existing abusers. That sounds simple, which is why so many academics hate it. When scholars defend Avital — or “complicate the narrative,” as we like to say — in part this is because we cannot stand believing what most people believe. The need to feel smarter is deep. Intelligence is a hungry god.
In this way, Avital’s case has become a strange referendum on literary study. Generations of scholars have been suckled at the teat of interpretation: We spend our days parsing commas and decoding metaphors. We get high on finding meaning others can’t. We hoard it, like dragons. We would be intellectually humiliated to learn that the truth was plain: that Avital quite simply sexually harassed her student, just as described. Sometimes analysis is simply denial with more words. Sometimes, as a frustrated student in a first-year literature course always mutters, the text just means what it says it means.
I'm horrified that any graduate student would have this experience of PhD-level literary study, in which it is nothing more than belabored overcomplexity yielding errors to be used in power shows.

We have to fix the second problem before we can address the first. We can't just say that Chu's description isn't typical. Folks in HT, lit crit, cultural studies, will need to be relentless and systematic in saying what our research programs are. We need to explain why we pursue them the way we do.

Above all, we now have to spell out the humanities' nonpecuniary benefits. Theorize this.


Leslie B. said...

So I had a whole comment, typed it, lost it, & won't try to reconstruct now except to say:

1/ all right, I'll write an article on non-pecuniary value, I have been meaning to do that but you give some good ideas, better than those I had, on how to frame it, and

2/ some say theory killed literary studies but I say that what killed them was the idea that language had to make money. I've got nothing against technical writing and business communication and I don't mind teaching them but I don't want to "defend myself" by saying I have only that to offer. It's humanities education that needs defending and languages / literature that need to be defended as part of them.

Being from theory as I am I tend to think of humanities as hard and not soft skills. I wish arts & humanities weren't thought of as mere places of emotion and self-expression, and did not try to defend themselves only in those terms.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I would have thought that a lit crit prof could have produced something generally intelligible, or is that incompatible with "theory?" I've never heard of any of the various theory types targeted in his drive by, but I am familiar with Harari, I think the author mistakes his purpose and method. Harari isn't trying to conjure up a mystically beneficent future, but predict the real one.

Chris Newfield said...

glad you're going to write about this @Leslie

Chris Newfield said...

Harari explicitly denies that he is predicting the future. He's very reasonably trying to identify things that could happen and figure out which ones are more likely. He did discuss one cultural factor I didn't mention in my post, which was the coming decline of nationalist chauvanism. But my impression was that progress consists of tech developments overcoming cultural conditions. that has been the Western model for going on 300 years. I don't think it will succeed in the future, since all our big problems combine technical, political, and cultural factors. In any case, funding and evaluating knowledge on the basis of pecuniary returns guarantees the underfunding of knowledge that will not yield direct monetary returns. And that means all knowledge with benefits that are mainly sociocultural, psychological, affective, institutional, political, or otherwise social. It also means basic research in the natural and physical sciences, since by definition fundamental research is years or decades away from definable uses and returns on investment--its very real value is to the next stage in the research. I realize that these points need much more elaboration and I hope that many people in all fields will do more of this. @CapitalistImperialistPig

Leslie B. said...

@Chris Newfield

If I can come up with something new-ish. Hey, read your UCSB e-mail, écris-moi on event plans.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

@Chris Newfield I think humans are probably obsolete - I know I am. I sort of hope that I'm wrong about the larger point, but I doubt it.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leslie B. said...

...and I'm working on it.

The next piece is called "Language and the entrepreneurial university" (in preparation) but this one, on nonpecuniary or at least non-short term pecuniary will be next. This is all tied to curriculum, the impoverishment of curriculum, as you point out here. And adjunctification.

BTW I do see what you mean about the Perloff and comment s'appelle-t'il, Ronell's ex-chair. I just think that (a) the *abandonment* of undergraduate education is a weak base upon which to maintain doctoral education; (b) Derrida and Lacan *were* arrogant, and Ronell *did* imitate them; (c) for some reason the US academy loved word-game deconstruction, not anything actually political or even seriously interpretive (cf. Chu, about whose graduate experience you make an important point).

[I was also finishing at UCB when AR was arriving, know some of her early prey, believe them, and am chilled to realize how much has to have been covered up for how long - ]

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