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  • Conflicts and Crisis in the Faculties:The Humanities in an Age of Identity
  • Rosalind C. Morris (bio)

the humanities are in crisis. and this is part of their self-identity. To say that the Humanities1 are constitutively in crisis is to imply, via the reading that has come to us from Reinhart Kosseleck, that their fundamental task is historical, in the sense that they entail the transmission of forms and values across time, and in the sense that time is a source of value for that which is transmitted. That relative value underwrites the authority of the statements made within their domain. It also assumes that humanistic knowledge—the forms of knowledge that are generally counterposed to scientific knowledge—is narrative (Lyotard [1979] 1984, 7). The question implicitly posed by the "Future of Scholarly Knowledge" conference at which this paper was presented is whether the crisis afflicting the Humanities in the new millennium is fundamentally different from those that characterized the previous century or, indeed, the period we may designate as Enlightenment modernity: the era of the university modeled on Humboldt's proposal for the University of Berlin. This question is not merely academic, although it pertains to the institution of the university: its status, its function, its role in the shifting organization of social and political authority, and its contributions to culture. As Lyotard stated in 1979, "it is impossible to know what the state of knowledge is … without knowing something of the society within which it is situated" (13).

Lyotard describes two main traditions for generating knowledge about society. On one hand is the functionalist school associated [End Page 583] with the work of Talcott Parsons, distantly derived from Comtean sociology. On the other is the critical theoretical tradition according to which society is conceived as internally divided and fundamentally agonistic. Theories of knowledge, dependent on theories of society, therefore demand a choice "between homogeneity and the intrinsic duality of the social, between functional and critical knowledge" ([1979] 1984, 13). Lyotard lamented the fact that in advanced capitalist societies with administrative states, oppositional struggles had been transformed into "regulators of the system" and critical theoretical efforts had been reduced to utopianism (13). In the wake of the Frankfurt School and the French movement Socialisme ou Barbarie, he suggests, protest was increasingly made not in terms of class (as had been the case in more orthodox forms of Marxism) but "in the name of man or reason or creativity, or again of some social category—such as the Third World or the students—on which is conferred in extremis the henceforth improbable function of critical subject" (13). On this point, Lyotard's analysis converges with Kosseleck's, with related but distinct consequences, as we shall see.

Much has changed since Lyotard authored his "Report on Knowledge" in 1979. It is therefore all the more significant that, today, the conservative defenders of the Humanities who envision culture as functionally integrated and self-conserving often attribute the deteriorating status of their fields, and the university more generally, to the devolution of that function—the function of the critical subject—onto minoritized social groups. Not merely "The Third World" or "students" in Lyotard's parlance, but identity-based disciplines and the scholarly projects associated with social justice movements (feminism, women's and gender studies, black studies, ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and so forth) are accused of both usurping and inhibiting the critical function. And it is against the putatively internal dissipation of universal criticality (and critical universality) that these advocates of the Humanities now marshal their own oppositional forces. [End Page 584]

The critical function that Lyotard associates with agonistic language games (in Wittgenstein's sense of the term) is not merely relevant to the Humanities, of course. It prepares individuals to undertake scientific research as well. This is because science moves forward at a paradigmatic level only by supplanting previous structures for determining the admissibility of statements—in a social context where the legitimated authorities determine the verifiability of scientific claims. The dependency of science on the Humanities is rarely noted, but in an ironic and undoubtedly inadvertent parody of the positivist sciences, defenders of the Humanities often assume their...


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