James Clifford, “The Greater Humanities”

By kind permission of James Clifford, this is the text of a talk he delivered at “The University We Are For,” a conference  organized by David Theo Goldberg and Wendy Brown at UC Berkeley (11/5/10). The Berkeley forum is webcast here and the UC Irvine version can be viewed here.

“The University We Are For.” The context, created by David Theo Goldberg and Wendy Brown exhorts us to look past our complaints about what’s happening to the University. No kvetching–something we’re all too good at, these days. We have permission to be un-ambivalently for something (more than just settling for what we can get): it’s OK to think big, to be utopian, for fifteen minutes. That’s how I see the assignment. I offer an immodest proposal. All the devils in the details can be left for later. There will be plenty of time for them.

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Not too long ago, I was the Humanities Divisional representative on a search committee for a new UCSC campus provost. One of our candidates—a dean from a big mid-western university who we interviewed at San Jose airport—spoke casually of the “five divisions of the university…and if you’re lucky enough to have professional schools, more.”  He meant Nat. ScI, Engineering, Soc Sci, Arts and Humanities.  He went on to talk about funding sources. The Humanities disappeared from the discussion.

But I was stuck on the numbers. Naively shocked. When I entered graduate school, we were an Arts and Sciences university, worrying about C. P. Snow’s “two cultures.”  Two!  I felt I lived in half the landscape. Now, in the airport, I had become part of a thin and shrinking slice of the pie. I think we can all recognize this shock, the fact and seemingly irreversible trend of belittlement. There’s been a lot of soul-searching, and blaming, over the reduction of the humanities to a minor position in the university–a necessary garnish for the main course, the practical fields that lead to jobs …etc, etc.  I don’t need to elaborate. It has been said that it’s our own fault, that the Humanities have become lost in “critique,” mired in jargon, speaking only to those who know the code. We respond defensively that no one expects physicists to eschew technical language… Why does everyone think they know what the Humanities are, or should be?

Some of you may recall Michael Berubé’s deft send-up of business thinking in academic administration that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education a while ago: “A Shakespeare Department: and other business ideas for colleges everywhere.” The downsizing CEO/Administrator looking for value in the Humanities, recommends creating a single department: Shakespeare at least is a recognizable brand, with “shelf life.” Re-packaging the whole operation to something that everyone can immediately understand: an all-too-familiar pattern of reduction, the humanities as veneer, consumerist décor…Berubé’s rationalizing administrator included one social science discipline, Anthropology, in his imagined Shakespeare Department. I take my cue from that. And why only one?

I want to persuade you that there already, actually exists a vital “greater humanities” that cuts across the University’s departmental and divisional lines. This is not a narrow, or shrinking wedge of the pie. But we don’t know what to call it. (In the 1970s, the phrase “human sciences” was, I think, an attempt to name a more expansive humanities…) Nor do we know how to activate this actually existing greater humanities institutionally.  Disciplinary and divisional turfs and traditions—these legacies from the early 20th century—are obvious obstacles… yet we can’t just wish them away.

The name “greater humanities” is a place-holder, and it may sound like bravado, or even a quixotic imperialism. (It actually has its origin in “greater New York” as seen by a child of Manhattan—those unknown boroughs at the end of the subway lines… There’s more to this big city than we know…) But the name is less important, now, than simply recognizing an already existing reality—an overlapping set of assumptions, epistemologies and methods that add up to a large, dynamic, and deeply rooted configuration of “knowledge practices”—linking and potentially opening up more narrowly defined “disciplinary traditions.”

A personal note. In my years at UCSC, the fields of History, Literature, and Socio-cultural Anthropology have oriented my thinking. I have learned from their specificities of focus, topic, and style, but I have never felt I was moving between fundamentally different approaches to cultural meaning and historical reality.

What characterizes the broad configuration of knowledge practices I’m calling The Greater Humanities? I’ll hazard a quick sketch–subject of course to debate and emendation. I’m painting with a broom here.

The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.

  1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.
  2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…
  3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.
  4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.

You may disagree with my shorthand characterizations, but I hope you will recognize a set of intellectual dispositions, a habitus, that link the humanities, a lot of the social sciences and the theoretically-informed arts.

I hasten to add that many of the dispositions I have identified above are active in the so-called hard sciences. Many individual scientists are potential allies, or fellow travelers, of the actually existing greater humanities. In some ultimate utopia, the university would be healed of all its divisions. But as far as I can see into the possibly realistic future, this is not in the cards, and it seems more important, now, to develop a vision (and supporting institutions) of two more or less equal, dynamic and open-ended academic cultures. (Some of us will recall that they weren’t really equal, or equally vital cultures for CP Snow, who tended to portray scientists representing the future, humanists the past…)

We don’t want it all. Just our half.

Here’s another sketch map of the Greater Humanities—by disciplines this time, most of them internally divided.

  • Literature (a vast archipelago)
  • History also very widely extended now (including Art History and Visual Culture, and why not? Archaeology…)
  • Philosophy (still divided along “two cultures” lines– hard/soft, analytic/continental. But there are signs of movement along this front…? )
  • Linguistics (also a divided field: do we need to chose between the traditions of Sapir and Chomsky?)
  • All the “studies” inter-disciplines: American Studies, Women’s/Feminist Studies, Ethnic Studies, Cultural Studies, Science and Technology  Studies… etc.
  • Socio-Cultural Anthropology (my own second home) and Historical Archaeology, Human Geography, Qualitative Sociology, some of Environmental Studies…
  • Film, Digital Media, Communications.
  • Important sectors of Politics, Economics, and Psychology.
  • And what we might call the theoretical “Arts”—including Theatre Arts and performance Studies.

This leaves out a good deal, I’m sure. But the map is, I trust, big enough to make my basic, and rather crude, point.

I’m sure many of us are uncomfortable with the sharp opposition I draw between the two cultures that I currently divide the university and to varying degrees, individual disciplines.  There are, important areas of convergence I readily admit. And there are recurring attempts by disciplines (or sectors of disciplines) in the humanities to be more “scientific,” on a natural science mode. This impulse has, of course, importantly defined the “social sciences.” (How successful they’ve been in becoming scientific is another question.) Occasional visions of “consilience” (E.O. Wilson) originating from the Natural Sciences, have imagined a similar movement. But imitation or assimilation (assimilation on whose terms?) is not dialogue or debate. The latter are what the Greater Humanities value, in a constitutive, ongoing and indeterminate way—something richer and deeper than a practice of sorting truth from falsehood, in the manner described by Karl Popper.

Of course real dialogue can only take place between equals. And we are not equals in the contemporary university. This is a fact and a growing tend, driven by material, political and economic, forces which I think I don’t need to belabor for this audience. The so-called STEM Fields (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) enjoy an unprecedented hegemony in the University. Their epistemological and methodological opposition to the “liberal arts” grows ever more extreme, and more intolerant. How can we respond?

A precedent comes to mind, from a book that influenced me as a graduate student:  H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (1958). Hughes, an intellectual historian in dialogue with Talcott Parsons and other leaders of Harvard’s “social relations” initiative, wrote in reaction to the 1950s boom in “social science.” His response begins with a chapter called “The Revolt against Positivism.” Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Croce, Pareto, Marx and Gramsci–the founders of modern social analysis– emerge as non-reductive, imaginative, yes “humanistic” thinkers, concerned with the unconscious, with indeterminate behaviors and complex, over-determined motivations.

The revolt against positivism wasn’t then (and isn’t now) a revolt against science.  But against a narrow, instrumentalist vision of science, a vision that fetishizes quantifiable, auditable outcomes—immediately useful (to whom?) and marketable (for whose benefit?) Does this sound familiar? I’m updating Hughes 1950s intervention for the neo-Liberal present, where we confront an economistic positivism perfectly adapted to the sink-or-swim, bootstraps (find your own grant support), privatized logics of an “entrepreneurial” system of rewards and punishments.

The Greater Humanities is an imagined coalition, based on already existing affinities, that could form a historic bloc (if you’ll allow me the Gramscian language) that could be broadly based, big enough to be an effective counterweight to (and interlocutor with) the STEM sectors that increasingly call the shots.

The necessary alliances, across the map of affinities I’ve sketched out, cannot be achieved from a primary base in the Humanities (seen as an academic Division). We need allies across the University. The name, Greater Humanities, is, thus, basically an exhortation to think big and relationally. An exhortation not to circle the wagons, either at departmental or divisional scales, and to go beyond “niche” thinking. If we protect ourselves in this way, as we sometimes must in our short-term battles against downsizing, we will do nothing to counter the long-term structural forces of belittlement. We will keep getting smaller and more marginal.

The big institutional bloc I’m imagining—and I have no concrete, immediate instructions on how to build it—cannot look like a more robust Humanities Division. (The Humanities must never be confused with a Division!) The institutional landscape is shifting: this is the bad and the good news. In the coming years there will certainly be departmental reconfigurations. And why not? There’s nothing sacred about these institutional units. (It’s often noted that the frequently hyphenating natural sciences don’t worry a lot about disciplinary centers and borders.) And the university’s larger divisions are certainly not immutable. We need to be open and opportunistic when it comes to institutional reconfigurations, especially when these support our emerging projects and not just the logic of administrative business models.

I’m urging that we keep our eye on the prize, even as we fight immediate battles for resources. Let’s work to strengthen existing affinities with the goal of creating a multiplex, adaptive, hyphenating/connecting knowledge space that is, as I’ve suggested, fundamentally interpretive, realist, historical, and ethico-political. If we can achieve this, in a differently configured university, “the Humanities” will disappear.

In a glowing metamorphosis…