On the novelty of “humanistic values.”

Academics have been discussing a crisis “in” or “of” the humanities since the late 1980s. Scholars disagree about the nature of the crisis, but it’s a widely shared premise that one is located somewhere “in the humanities.”

The crisis of the humanities, as seen in Google Books.The phrase “digital humanities” invites a connection to this debate. If DH is about the humanities, and “grounded in humanistic values” (Spiro 23), then it stands to reason that it ought to somehow respond to any crisis that threatens “the humanities.” This is the premise that fuels Alan Liu’s well-known argument about DH and cultural criticism. “[T]he digital humanities community,” he argues, has a “special potential and responsibility to assist humanities advocacy.”

I think these assumptions need to be brought into conversation with Geoffrey Harpham’s recent, important book The Humanities and the Dream of America (h/t @noeljackson). Harpham’s central point is simple: our concept of “the humanities” emerged quite recently. Although the individual disciplines grouped under that umbrella are older, the umbrella itself is largely a twentieth-century invention — and only became institutionally central after WWII.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, when administrators at Columbia, Chicago, Yale, and Harvard began to speak fervently of the moral and spiritual benefits of a university education, “the humanities” has served as the name and the form of the link Arnold envisioned between culture, education, and the state. Particularly after World War II, the humanities began to be opposed not just to its traditional foil, science, but also to social science, whose emergence as a powerful force in the American academy was marked by the founding of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford in 1951 (87).

In research for a forthcoming book (Why Literary Periods Mattered, Stanford UP) I’ve poked around a bit in the institutional history of the early-twentieth-century university, and Harpham’s thesis rings true to me. Although the word has a pre-twentieth-century history, our present understanding of “the humanities” is strongly shaped by an institutional opposition between humanities and social sciences that only made sense in the twentieth century. For whatever it’s worth, Google Books also tends to support Harpham’s contention that the concept of the humanities has only possessed its present prominence since WWII.

humanitiesDefenses of “culture,” of course, are older. But it hasn’t always been clear that culture was coextensive with the disciplines now grouped together as humanistic. In the middle of the twentieth century, literary critics like René Wellek fervently defended literary culture from philistine encroachment by the discipline of history. The notion that literary scholars and historians must declare common cause against a besieging world of philistines is a very different script, and one that really only emerged in the last thirty years.

Why do I say all this? Am I trying to divide literary scholars from historians? Don’t I see that we have to hang together, or hang separately?

I understand that higher education, as a whole, is under attack from the right. So I’m happy to declare common cause with people who are working to articulate the value of literary studies and history — or for that matter, anthropology and library science. But I don’t think it’s quite inevitable that these battles should be fought under the flag of the humanities.

After all, Florida governor Rick Scott has been just as critical of “anthropology” as of literary criticism. Humanists could well choose to make common cause with the social sciences, in order to defend shared interests.

Or one could argue that we’d be better off fighting for specific concepts like “literature” and “history” and “art.” People outside the university know what those are. It’s not clear that they have a vivid concept of the humanities. It’s a term of recent and mostly academic provenance.

lithistOn the other hand, there may be good reason to mobilize around “the humanities.” Certainly the NEH itself is worth defending. Ultimately, this is a question of political strategy, and I don’t have strong opinions about it. I’m very happy to see people defending individual disciplines, or the humanities, or higher education as a whole. In my eyes, it’s all good.

But I do want to push back gently against the notion that scholars in any discipline have a political obligation to organize under the banner of “the humanities,” or an intellectual obligation to define “humanistic” methods. The concept of the humanities may well be a recent invention, shaped by twentieth-century struggles over institutional turf. We talk about “humanistic values” as if they were immemorial. But Erasmus did not share our sense that history and literature have to band together in order to resist encroachment by sociology.

More pointedly: cultural criticism and humanities advocacy are fundamentally different things. There have been many kinds of critical, politically engaged intellectuals; only in the last sixty years have some of them self-identified as humanists.

What does all this mean for the digital humanities? I don’t know. Since “the humanities” are built right into the phrase, perhaps it should belong to people who identify as humanists. But much of the work that interests me personally is now taking place in departments of Library and Information Science, which inherit a social science tradition (as Kari Kraus has recently pointed out). So I would also be happy with a phrase like “digital humanities and social sciences.” Dan Cohen recently used that phrase as a course title, and it’s an interesting move.

Added a few hours after posting: To show a few more of my own cards, I’ll confess that what I love most about DH is the freedom to ignore disciplinary boundaries and follow shared problems wherever they lead. But I’m beginning to suspect that the concept of the humanities may itself discourage interdisciplinary risks. It seems to have been invented (rather recently) to define certain disciplines through their collective difference from the social and natural sciences. If that’s true, “digital humanities” may be an awkward concept for me. I’m a literary historian, and I do feel loyalty to the methods of that discipline. But I don’t feel loyalty to them specifically as different from the sciences.

Added a day after initial posting: And, to be clear, I don’t mean that we need a better name than “digital humanities.” There’s a basic tension between interdisciplinarity and field definition — so any name can become constricting if you spend too much time defining it. For me the bottom line is this: I like the interdisciplinary energy that I’ve found in the DH blogosphere and don’t care what we call it — don’t care, in a radical way — to the extent that I don’t even care whether critics think DH is consonant with, quote, “humanistic values.” Because in truth, some of those values are recent inventions, shaped by pressure to differentiate the humanities from the social sciences — and that move deserves to be questioned every bit as much as DH itself does. /done now

Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Humanities and the Dream of America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011. (I should note that I may not agree with all aspects of Harpham’s argument. In particular, I’m not yet persuaded that the concept of ‘the humanities’ is as fully identified with the United States in particular as he argues.)

Liu, Alan. “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). 490-509.

Spiro, Lisa. “‘This is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). 16-35.