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  • Introduction
  • Rita Felski

This special issue of New Literary History explores the relevance of Bruno Latour’s work for the humanities in two distinct yet related ways. First, how might this work reinvigorate or reorient literary studies, art history, religious studies, or other disciplines in the humanities? And second, how does it speak to “humanities discourse”—that is to say, the countless lamentations, perorations, jeremiads, diagnoses, and defenses of the humanities that have appeared in recent years, and that constitute a genre in their own right? Latour’s work, as we will see, gives us a rather different perspective on this flood of commentary and metacommentary. Some of the standard defenses of the humanities—they make us more human! they teach us to be critical thinkers!—start to sound hollow, and we find ourselves reaching for other argumentative weapons and diplomatic tools.

Let’s begin with a thought experiment: what exactly would be lost if we lost the humanities? Such a question invites us to imagine an experience of loss and to anticipate the reactions triggered by this loss.1 Only in the gray early morning light, when a lover departs in a taxi for the last time, are we suddenly made aware of the depth and intensity of our passion. So too, perhaps we can more fully appreciate why the humanities are irreplaceable by contemplating the prospect of their nonexistence. According to one influential line of thought, the loss of the humanities would mean, above all, the loss of critique. Critique, of course, has a long history that can be spun in diverse ways; as a synonym for Socratic or Kantian modes of philosophical questioning, for example, or to denote an adversarial and agonistic style of political argument. This latter use of the term, especially, has gained increased traction in the humanities in the last half century. Critique, in this sense, typically includes the following elements: a spirit of skeptical reflection or outright condemnation; an emphasis on its own precarious position vis-à-vis overbearing social forces; the claim to be engaged in some kind of radical intellectual and/or political work; and the assumption that whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical.2

This association of the humanities with critique has recently been underscored by Terry Eagleton in a widely noted essay. “Are the humanities [End Page 215] about to disappear?” Eagleton wonders. He goes on: “What we have witnessed in our own time is the death of universities as centres of critique. Since Margaret Thatcher, the role of academia has been to service the status quo, not challenge it in the name of justice, tradition, imagination, human welfare, the free play of the mind or alternative visions of the future.”3 The declining role and influence of the humanities is tied, Eagleton declares, to the evisceration of critical thinking. Thanks to an increasingly instrumental and market-driven view of knowledge, underwritten by ballooning bureaucracies that cast professors and students in the roles of managers and consumers, the concerns of the humanities are made to seem ever more peripheral.

We can endorse Eagleton’s anger and frustration about the sidelining of the humanities without subscribing to the terms of his defense. Indeed, his own words might give us pause, for they do not support his argument as well as he might think. Some of the ideas he invokes—imagination, perhaps; tradition, certainly—are hardly synonymous with critique; indeed, they have often been seen as its antithesis. “Critique” may be too broad-brush a term to help us think through the various practices of the humanities. As Helen Small writes: “The work of the humanities is frequently descriptive, or appreciative, or imaginative, or provocative, or speculative, more than it is critical.”4 That intellectuals so often invoke “critique” as a guiding ethos and principle speaks to the grip of an either/or mindset: the fear that if one is not declaring one’s opposition to the status quo, one is therefore being co-opted by it. The practices of academic life may turn out to be more messy, more ambiguous, and more interesting.

Is it possible to voice a defense of the humanities that is not anchored...


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pp. 215-229
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