Why the Humanities Matter: A Commonsense Approach

July 9, 2009

Any book that defends the humanities is to be welcomed. The threat to their existence is not just from the politicians who want to make them more business-facing but from those within their own ranks who have undermined the very principles upon which humanities depend: critique and creativity. Those supercilious souls who, in the 1980s and 1990s, sneered at the achievements of minds far greater than their own are partly responsible for the weakened state of the humanities today. Their derision helped create a climate in which subjects such as literature came to be judged in instrumental terms. No doubt it wasn't intended but we have arrived at a situation where it is not unusual to hear lecturers advocate abolishing history teaching in schools because it is not "relevant".

Academics don't speak the truth to power; they have become apologists for it. Frederick Luis Aldama cites the case of post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha's participation in the World Economic Forum, claiming he was "complicit with an imperialist agenda". This, though, is just the first wisp of dry rot. Aldama traces the history of how various US administrations have manipulated university curriculums - from the CIA subsidising conferences and magazines, to the funding poured into the study of Middle Eastern languages, culture and history after 9/11; not to better engage with those countries but to better control them.

Aldama reserves his real ire, though, for those whom he terms "idealists". Whether they hail from history, literature or cultural studies, they all "privilege the mind over the material world" and imagine that if we change the way we speak, we change the world. That notion, which has its roots in the famous opening of the Gospel of St John - "In the beginning was the word" - contains some truth, but Aldama is surely right to point out that it has been given too much credence in recent years. A telling example is Jacques Lacan's account of the "mirror stage" whereby the infant mistakes its image for its identity. Aldama notes that Lacan ignored important contemporary work that showed that the infant's recognition of itself was not instantaneous, and also that visual awareness was not the key factor in the appearance of self-consciousness.

We live in the real world. War, poverty, unemployment and inequality are not mere constructs that will vanish if properly deconstructed. They impact viscerally on those who suffer them. We are not going to bring about social change by decoding symbols, only by class struggle. Are the two mutually exclusive? Interrogations of ideology would suggest not. But Aldama seems to think they are. Hence we must abandon semiotic resistance and "create the massive material force necessary to transform the capitalist economic system that exploits the working class worldwide". He is nothing if not ambitious.

Perhaps this is what is wrong with the humanities, this desire to create heaven on earth. It can't be done and we should confine our attention to research, close reading and evaluation. In the end, humanities scholars, as Aldama admits, do not add to the sum of human knowledge, but they do produce "insight, analysis, logic, speculation, historical knowledge, linguistic mastery, geographic precision, aesthetic appreciation and religious understanding". That's not bad for starters and they are also inherently democratic because they encourage discussion and debate.

Ranging over topics as diverse as translation, music and the nature of modernity, Why the Humanities Matter is not an easy read. It's strictly for the dedicated and certainly not for students. But persevere and the rewards are great; particularly enjoyable is Aldama's debunking of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Lacan. For years they were worshipped as the Trinity instead of studied as thinkers, but here they are brought severely down to earth. The way is then cleared for establishing the humanities on a more empirical footing, whether it is the social or indeed the chemical. Aldama has a lot to say about neurons. And I can imagine outrage in some quarters at this remark: "to declare sexuality a performative construct neglects the biological material facts".

There's an interesting distinction made between literature and popular fiction: the one "teaches (you) how to read it while the other simply tells a story" and there's much on what we ought to be doing as well as on what we ought not. Top of the list is encouraging "thoughtful and critical thinking", the very things that learning and teaching are designed to suppress. But if you want a short answer to why the humanities matter, it's this: we repeat that which is worth repeating, and that which is in danger of being forgotten.

Why the Humanities Matter: A Commonsense Approach

By Frederick Luis Aldama. University of Texas Press. 391pp, £35.00. ISBN 97802917985. Published 4 September 2008

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