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  • Toward the Practice of the Humanities
  • Sylvia Gale (bio) and Evan Carton (bio)

One consolation for humanists about the contemporary crisis of the humanities in America is that it is centuries old. "Perhaps the time is already come," Emerson encouraged the members of the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837, "when the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron lids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better than the exertions of mechanical skill." "By the time a man was old enough to have a son in college," Woodrow Wilson admonished the delegates to the 1910 convention of the Association of American Universities, in a speech entitled The Importance of the Arts Course as Distinct from the Professional and Semi-professional Courses, "he had become so immersed in some one special interest that he no longer comprehended the country and age in which he was living." "Few observers of higher education would deny," Duke University vice-provost for interdisciplinary studies Cathy Davidson and University of California Humanities Research Institute director David Theo Goldberg declared in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2004, "that support for the humanities is declining in an environment in which universities are increasingly ordered according to the material interests, conditions, and designs of the sciences, technology, and the professions."

While we praise (and generally share) the cultural commitments that underlie Emerson's, Wilson's, and Davidson and Goldberg's briefs for the humanities, we think that the time has come to bury their rhetoric. We do not pretend to have discovered exactly how to lay traditional descriptions and defenses of the humanities to rest, let alone to have devised an entirely adequate alternative promotional discourse for what we do and value. But we believe that such formulations as the ones we have quoted are flawed and self-defeating, at once hobbled from effectively performing the public advocacy they intend and ill-suited to represent the sort of humanities work that takes place not only within but beyond and, increasingly, across the walls of contemporary American universities.

The appeals of Emerson, Wilson, and Davidson and Goldberg, though composed in different centuries, are all predicated upon an assumed divide between instrumental and humanistic endeavors, and between non-academic and academic environments and communities. Under this standard, the humanities enters the contest for popular interest and support by representing itself as a restricted domain and conceding the field of direct and productive activity to its adversary. What Davidson and Goldberg call "the province of the humanities" is thus doomed to seem both provincial — marginal, ancillary — and rarefied. And it is so doomed whether that province is imagined (or governed) conservatively or radically, as a space of cultivation or a space of critique. By the characteristic implication of its spokespersons, the humanities — as Auden remarked of poetry and Fish said of theory — makes nothing happen.

This is the unfortunate implication of Davidson and Goldberg's rhetoric, from their essay's title on. "A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age" disclaims not only the age but also practical skill and constructiveness (techne-), leaving the humanities unmanifest and abstractly, sometimes abjectly, propositional: "We have much to offer, and we need to be assertive in defining our contribution, labeling it, and getting our message heard." The authors proceed to offer "seven characterizations of the humanities," each of which they identify by an epigrammatic label: "History matters"; "Relationality reveals"; "Conscience and critical memory trouble"; "Creativity counts"; "Social policy contains social assumptions and values"; "Communication clarifies"; "Diversity is important"; and "Linguistic diversity is essential to real heterogeneity." Again, we should stress that we assent to these propositions and agree that they adumbrate some of the work and worth of the humanities. Yet it is noteworthy and problematic, we think, that in all but one of Davidson and Goldberg's characterizations, the subject is unincarnate and the verb is intransitive.

The exception, proposition five, is the one case in which the humanities are aligned with the objects ("social assumptions and values") that the substantive subject ("policy") contains and conceals. Davidson and Goldberg gloss this proposition as follows: "The humanities, social in character even if all...


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