[iDC] The Future of the Humanities

Florian Cramer flrncrmr at gmail.com
Wed Jul 13 12:56:35 UTC 2011

On Wed, Jul 13, 2011 at 5:05 AM, Brian Holmes
<bhcontinentaldrift at gmail.com> wrote:
> Geert Lovink wrote:
>  >Cuture and the arts have to be alive in society and can be
>  > supported with research from  the university level but should never
>  > depend on them in any way. Let alone that they should depend on the
>  > 'science system'
> Davin Heckman wrote:
>>   I wonder if "culture" can survive
>> without being cultivated and supported by the general public that it
>> exists to connect.
> I agree with both of you. The thing is, in most capitalist societies
> outside maybe a few European cities, only the university can concentrate
> a deep knowledge of the past and widely explore the present through
> interpretation and experiment. But today the university is dominated by
> student processing and professional research programs.

My perspective is even more bleak. In continental Europe, university
humanities have almost no connection to artistic practice, and never
had. Everything related to contemporary artistic practice strictly is
a domain of the art schools. An artist can't become a professor in a
humanities department unless s/he has a traditional academic education
and Ph.D.. Creative writing programs, for example, hardly exist
because they're not considered academic research. Programs with
cultural events - literary readings, poetry festivals, concerts, art
exhibitions - that are normal for U.S. American campuses don't exist
(or only in very small niches), since they are the domain of
tax-funded arts institutions.

The function of university humanities in continental Europe is to
study and preserve cultural heritage, (in case of the literature and
language departments) to train middle and high school teachers, and to
produce research that matches the criteria and organization of science
research projects. [I.e. a literature department can create a research
project on metaphorology, obtain grants, but has to form research
groups and produce research results in a similar manner to a research
project on particle physics. This is particularly true for
German-language academia]

The connection of university humanities to contemporary arts is mostly
indirect: Most art curators have studied art history, most editors of
publishing houses literature etc. To work in these fields, a Master's
or Ph.D. degree in the humanities often is a job requirement.

For these reasons, hybrid humanities disciplines such as cultural
studies and media studies [unless they're journalism/communication
departments] never gained a serious foot in Europe. Many if not most
Europeans that are known as writers or theorists in the new media
field don't teach at classical universities, but in art schools or
even more often work outside academia. Geert's Institute of Network
Culture, for example, formally isn't an institute, but an applied
research program of a polytechnical school/vocational college. (I work
in the same kind of construction.)

In some ways, the European humanities are protected that way, as long
as governments see the continued necessity of  having philological
text editions of classical writers and providing museums with the
expertise of how to preserve their Rembrandts. A temporary boom
followed by a collapse in the humanities was created by the boom of
poststructuralist and postmodern theory since the 1980s. In a European
perception, it promised to stimulate new ways of creative
cross-disciplinary thinking, from business consulting to fusing
hermeneutics with chaos theory. It is not widely acknowledged, but the
Sokal affair destroyed much of that credibility and ever since had the
humanities humbled in front of the sciences. (It's interesting that
"Social Text" is a partner of Mobility Shifts, btw.) Particularly in
the German-speaking countries, this has led to a boom of scientism in
the humanities. (Most of my former colleagues at the Peter Szondi
Institute of Comparative Literature now work in a research cluster on
aesthetics and neuroscience.) Kittlerian media studies were a vital
part of this, and very quickly moved from new media studies to
discursive history of science with zero engagement with contemporary
new media culture.

The question for me is whether the humanities are worth defending as a
discipline, aside from their truly important core function of
providing a few years of intellectual education to young people.

It would be interesting, btw., to reread David Lodge's 1990s campus
novels as the documents of a bygone era [that nowadays only lives on
in contemporary art curator symposia]. I can't say though that I miss
this era, especially in the vanity excesses as described there.


blog: http://en.pleintekst.nl

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