- The Humanities “Crisis” and the Future of Literary Studies by Paul Jay
Much of the argument put forward in Paul Jay’s The Humanities “Crisis” and the Future of Literary Studies hinges on the quotation marks around the word “crisis” in the title. For Jay, the notion that there is a contemporary crisis in literary studies is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t that the rhetoric of crisis does not dominate present day accounts of the humanities and the field of literary studies, it’s that, according to Jay, the rhetoric of crisis has been a constant in both the larger discipline and the smaller field since their emergence in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century United States. Moreover, this rhetoric becomes self-sustaining: “Indeed,” he writes, “I argue that what many commentators see as a perpetual humanities crisis is fueled in part by the rhetoric of crisis itself” (1). Thus for Jay, the rhetoric of crisis is productive in a Foucauldian sense, sustaining a perception that the humanities are in danger of imminent collapse.
Certainly there is some truth in this argument, particularly in the book’s critique of the repeated conservative and traditionalist lamentations about (choose one): the neglect of the classics; the growth of academic professionalism and theory; the concomitant loss of an unmediated and purely aesthetic relationship to literature; or the decline of Western civilization itself. In contrast to these conservative positions, Jay’s book advances a persuasive defense of the value of academic theory and professional discourse for not only sustaining the sophisticated work undertaken by the humanities over the last forty years but also [End Page 348] providing precisely the kinds of useful skills (critical thinking, critical writing practices, and “think[ing] open-mindedly in the context of divergent points of view”) that corporations, professions, and non-profits say that they value in humanities majors (28). The latter is perhaps the most persuasive argument advanced by the book: that rather than being afraid of calls for utility, we need to demonstrate and embrace how useful the humanities already are. Such an embrace of utility should not be at the expense of the critical dimension of the humanities, but in fact is part of their ability to produce on-the-ground changes. Similarly, rather than being afraid or disdainful of corporate culture, we should maintain our critique of capitalist business practices while also working to transform them from within. Jay’s proposal, then, works persuasively to reconcile the vocational with the critical, the teaching of critical citizenship alongside of useful and marketable skills. In an era in which financialization and the growth of what David Harvey describes as neoliberal “accumulation by dispossession” define much of the economy, Jay’s defense of what we as humanities teachers and scholars produce is persuasive.
Yet my invocation of the context of neoliberalism and the wholesale changes to higher education that it has either effected or portends to effect reveals the limit of Jay’s argument that the crisis is merely a product of the rhetoric of crisis. Such an argument is only tenable if we remain within a thoroughly culturalist understanding of the current situation of the humanities. The war waged on higher education in the present is primarily material rather than cultural. It is not neoconservatives who are the greatest threat in the present but neoliberals (whether in the guise of for-profit education institutions, textbook companies and their lobbies, careerist higher administrators, outside efficiency consultants, educational think tanks and NGOs, or state and federal politicians who are thoroughly convinced by neoliberal solutions). It is only in its conclusion that the The Humanities “Crisis” mentions things like the growth of non-tenure-track labor, the wholesale destruction of shared governance, the war of attrition on tenure, and the disproportionate growth of upper administration to tenure lines in the last twenty years.
Given its culturalist focus, The Humanities “Crisis” advances careful and persuasive arguments in defense of professionalism; against charges of so-called political correctness; for an expanded and multicultural...