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  • Understanding Knowledge Work
  • Alan Liu


To a greater or lesser degree, Johanna Drucker's and N. Katherine Hayles's fair, principled reviews of my Laws of Cool articulate in their own right a broad vision of what is staked upon the humanities and arts in the information age. Drucker writes: "At stake is nothing less than the future of the humanities. To set a viable course for survival we have to unmask assumptions about what the humanities are." Hayles adds: "In my view, the humanities cannot afford to abandon its connection with history, or to construe this connection solely as the history of critical destruction. Such a narrowing of historical focus and thus of the meaning and importance of the humanities would be a grievous capitulation." If there is more momentousness behind such statements than might strictly seem merited by the topic—the academic humanities and arts—then this is because the question of humanities education overlaps with the question of "humanity" itself. What is humanity today, and what can humanities and arts education do for it, or to it, by comparison with other institutions and disciplines?

The answer my book offers may be summarized as follows. The portion of humanity that higher education today trains is preshaped by general culture—specifically, "producer culture" in league with consumer culture—for knowledge work. The present task of humanities and arts education, therefore, is to modulate the signal of that broader training so that it carries not just productive knowledge (matched to consumption) but also a more intelligent form of the counter-signal—ordinarily riding above or beneath the main carrier wave—that I call the "ethos of the unknown." Once we might have termed this ethos "identity," "culture," or even "soul" (Geist). But now a darker version of Bildung applies. The ethos of the unknown is not a surplus that emerges from neo-Enlightenment knowledge, but instead a reserve held back precisely from such knowledge. In its everyday variant, it is what students and knowledge workers call "cool": a style, attitude, or object identification (constructed from elaborate [End Page 249] screens of music, fashion, technology, and so on) whose pure superficiality—or irony—creates a shield of unknowability.

Humanities and arts educators, I argue, must strive to lead such cool, if not into the light of knowledge (the fluorescent lights of the cubicle), then into some fuller, more humane spectrum of experience. Specifically, part 4 of my book concludes that humanities and arts disciplines can do so by exploiting their unique expertise in historical understanding to show, reciprocally, that "cool has a history" and "history can be cool." In other words, if cool is the shrill, edgy treble of the "ethos of the unknown," then the bass note—so deep that it might be heard even through the pedantic voices of parents and teachers as the voice of authenticity itself—is history. After all, postindustrial "creative destruction," in economist Joseph Schumpeter's phrase, is not the only kind of history we can use.1 There are also many alternative histories—including contestatory or avant-garde histories of "destructive creation"—held in deep reserve. Think, for example, of the original cool of jazz or, again, of rhythm and blues. How much history is there behind that; and can the humanities and arts draw such history forth to change the tone of the age of cool?

To all of which Drucker answers (after summarizing in her own terms), "Huh?" Hayles is less pointed, but she also suspects there is a fundamental disconnect both in my essential diagnosis, which she thinks overstates the influence of corporate knowledge work, and in my prescription, which she believes focuses too much on aesthetic "critical destruction" at the expense of the historical awareness for which I call.

New Media Bildung

I wish to reply to huh? not with narrow refutation (I will take my hits on that score) but instead in a manner as expansive as Drucker's and Hayles's intent. Indeed, I think that expanding the range of huh?—its blast zone, as it were—is the key to the impasse. If huh? does actually ventriloquize the mainstream response (the very riposte of the unknowing...