Even though in my last post I tried to describe the movement towards “doing scholarship in public” that forms a background for three different levels of academic fights these days, it still seems sometimes like the “humanities is a waste of time” fight remains the most salient.
After all, if one takes that waste of time as a given, who cares what people are brawling about at MLA? Similarly, in general, it seems that it’s only professors (and their putative replacements, graduate students) who complain about the problems corrupting the current university as a whole. I imagine that, for the most part, people are content with the perceived value of a (non-humanities) degree in terms of future employment prospects.
So I wasn’t surprised when a friend (and colleague) google-shared Sharon Begley’s Newsweek article introducing the field of “cultural neuroscience” with a (to my ears) defensive tone, arguing that this field offers the best avenue of proof that “humanities-types aren’t just b.s.’ing [their] way through the academy.” Now, said friend is also, generally, into cognitive science, so I may be overreading the defensiveness, but the comment in general struck me for a number of reasons tying back to last week’s post.
Most obviously is this fear that there is some kind of “b.s.’ing” going on in the humanities. I mean, I strongly doubt that the MLA board (or whoever) gets together the day after the annual conference, opens up a keg of Heineken, and parties in a collective “we can’t fucking believe what bullshit artists we are to the degree that thousands of deluded, bright dipshit kids want to try to emulate us by applying to literature PhD programs every year!” So it’s not that we, as a field, think (secretly) amongst ourselves that we’re full of shit. Maybe (strike that…definitely) we think a colleague here or there is full of shit, but the entire organ of study?
Which means, then, that we worry that outsiders think we’re full of shit. It’s obviously true that (many|most) outsiders think that, but I’m not sure how much we should be defensive about it. My first year of grad school, John Guillory came to give a lecture that explained the best reason for being defensive: namely that humanities departments have to use the language of the business world to justify funding, hiring, and tenure decisions. Since then, I’ve also heard concerns about enrollment numbers (in undergrad courses, but this includes the various numerical ways of measuring PhD programs as well). These four areas are probably the four elements that keep the standard department alive at any university: you have to make sure you can pay people, figure out whom you want to hire to teach, decide who should stay forever, and have enough students to continue the circle of life.
And all four areas have been quantized–spreadsheetable so that accountants in Admin buildings can get a snapshot of a department (“their time-to-degree sucks, but they rake in mad majors”). Scholarship becomes a question solved by pencil-pushing, and now it becomes easier to conceive of scholars as laborers, alienated like any other.
So defensiveness toward an increasingly actuarial university administrative structure is one thing, but should the humanities feel defensive toward other divisions within the academy? Toward the public? I read my friend’s comment as saying that, yes, we should, and that by adopting more of those world’s techniques and (implicitly) values, we will justify ourselves in their eyes. Which leads us to cultural neuroscience.
Begley’s article, which has already yielded some 2k clicks via bit.ly, introduces the field by way of showing how people from different cultures use different parts of their brain when describing themselves, when doing math, and so on. Begley quickly brings up the “cultural cliché” that scientists are now “proving,” and ends up postulating that this field would probably tell us nothing that anthropology already has not (namely the overarching claim that Westerners value the “individual,” whereas Easterners value the “collective,” to the sadness of western communists the world around). That may be true, but unlike anthropology, cultural neuroscience uses fancy (and expensive, and, therefore, valuable to the university) sciency techniques, which inbue the results with a “hardness” that make the findings more marketable and press releasable, reflecting value back on the university.
So as I remarked on twitter, cutural neuroscience sounds basically like Thomas Friedman with an fMRI, as we have our cultural stereotypes and valuation of an indelible pluralism validated (somehow even Begley’s math-based example of a “surprising” result still serves to affirm a stereotype), much in the same way that racialist science kept finding new ways of proving, scientifically, differences between races (hear this 2008 episode of Radiolab to see what a cockup scientific racial difference has become).
I’m a bit interested in how this research might go about confirming the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, though I actually see its future more in a bizarro world of multicultural-positive, racially profiled human resources, as job listings emerge including qualifications like “able to spatialize numbers, Chinese native-speaker preferred.” In other words, I see a future where an fMRI session will replace the job interview.
But since this is a post about us “humanities-types,” I should return to the implications in my friend’s note. I’m generally very friendly toward rigorous quantitative analysis of literature–friendly to the degree that my current chapter makes reference to Z-scores and includes a Monte Carlo simulation. But I’m uncertain about whether I think that’s the future of literary study as a whole.
Digital humanities to me means, basically, using computational methods to do literary study, and that means doing things that are pretty much impossible to do without a computer. This approach lies in contrast to one that makes use of things that are simply easier to do with a computer. So, for example, a Monte Carlo simulation (or a quantitative analysis of titles) is appropriate as a new approach (as “doing digital humanities”), but a wordle (or a google book search on weeds) is not. What computers make possible has to be in the service of something else, otherwise it’s just “old hum but on the iPad,” as @sepoy says, not a true digital humanities.1
In this sense of openness to quant, something like fMRIs and literature strikes me as a (possibly interesting) future avenue of research, but I wonder if, in doing that, we follow ourselves down a reader-response rabbit hole, where the object of study moves from being literature to being how the reader responds to literature to being about the reader herself, thereby becoming no longer a humanistic pursuit, but, rather, a social scientific pursuit.
Avoiding this rabbit hole has forced me to limit my own whatever quantitative analysis to the text itself (which then limits the number of potential texts for study, but OK). This is in contrast to scholars like Moretti, who seems like he can’t help but move to a quantitative history of books-in-the-world (see the third and final chapter of his Atlas or the “Graphs” and “Trees” chapters of Graphs, Maps, Trees) from an analysis of the worlds-in-the-book (earlier chapters of the Atlas, “Maps” from G,M,T). To me, that move to books-in-the-world, pace dear friends in history of the book projects, becomes far too close to history for me (even Moretti qualifies it as “abstract models” for a “literary history”), which means, by the weird UofC rubric, that it becomes somehow extra-humanistic, for what it’s worth. This is, incidentally, partly why I feel bizarrely New Critical often when writing. It’s a dizzying time.
What I mean is that if some level of disciplinary distinction remains important (and I think “nodes on a rhizome” is a good model for this), it is important to figure out what exactly literary study looks like when it’s appropriating not just theories from other disciplines (like during the slutty 80s when there wasn’t a social theorist who couldn’t be quoted in a literature journal) but now also methods, as well. And since I can’t hook up Elizabeth Bennett to an fMRI, I’m skeptical about pinning the future of the humanities on fields like neuroscience, cultural or otherwise.
The point comes around to itself then. My friend’s note begs the question of the humanities bs-ing its way around town. And while there are administrative reasons why these kinds of public appearances are important, I see the future publicly clean image of humanistic research not in images of brain activity, but in the scholarship on the streets.
- Importantly, there’s the public/social/ethical/collaborational aspect of digital humanities that I’m not discussing here as well. [↩]
Tags: digital humanities, Franco Moretti, humanities, John Guillory, mla, multiculturalism, New Criticism, quantitative analysis, racism, Radiolab, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Sharon Begley, statistics, Thomas Friedman