Progressively benighted

Jonathan Taylor posits that our emphasis on the advancement of knowledge can crush creativity

August 14, 2008

Among the dirty words in arts and humanities departments these days, "progress" is one of the dirtiest. No one would dream of using it without irony or the qualifying phrase "myth of" as a prefix.

The all-powerful "myth of progress", we are to understand, has hoodwinked writers, artists and scientists with optimism ever since the Enlightenment. But now we know that "progress" was just a pretext for all sorts of power relations - for example, a form of colonialism that presupposed that one race was more progressive than another, and so wielded the right of domination.

In the modern academy, we know better than those benighted simpletons of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The problem, of course, is that "to know better" itself presumes a form of progress between then and now. The casual debunking of "progress" implies a progressive model of knowledge, whereby it is possible to know more about culture, history and texts than people did in the past. Such an assumption is everywhere in the modern arts and humanities. It lies at the heart of how we define "research": in the Arts and Humanities Research Council's guide to doctoral awards it states that PhDs should "make significant contributions to the advancement of knowledge". Now, if that is not progressive language, I do not know what is. The AHRC guide seems ever-so-18th-century at this point; all that is missing is the archaic capitalisation of Advancement, Knowledge and Understanding, and we are back in the age of Optimism, Scientific Endeavour, Colonial Expansion.

And therein lies one of the dangers of this unspoken progressive narrative: once again, it becomes a means of upholding certain power relations - one of which is a kind of historical colonialism. The assumption that we know more than people did in the past gives us a licence to patronise that past to colonise it with our own ideas. I have come across literary academics who dismiss The Tempest as "racist" and The Old Curiosity Shop as "sexist". The Law of Academic Progress (as we might be tempted to call it) states that we know better than Shakespeare and Dickens. It means we can colonise the past with a modern sense of ethical superiority. Poor benighted Shakespeare and Dickens; they did not know they were being racist or sexist, but we in the 21st century are here to tell them. How kind of us.

In short, the Law of Academic Progress states that we know the past better than it knew itself. In this way, it privileges the present over the past. It also privileges particular kinds of "research" - research that "adds" to our knowledge of the past. The idea that knowledge might not always be cumulative is alien to the Law of Academic Progress; and alternative models of research as a form of creativity, of imaginative play, of practical experimentation must seem positively outlandish.

Hence the still rather anomalous status of creative, performative or practical subjects when it comes to institutions such as the AHRC and the research assessment exercise. For these institutions, subjects such as creative writing need special pleading because creativity can only be justified as a way of "finding things out" and "adding to knowledge". Creative writing has to be crushed into a progressive narrative of knowledge. It is not enough to write a masterpiece; a masterpiece has to tell us something new about the past.

In this way, the Advancement of Knowledge is privileged over the aesthetic quality of the writing itself. But then, subjects such as creative writing only bring to the surface what is problematic about the progressive narrative of knowledge in general - that the narrative is actually an obsolete scientific model that has been imported and imposed upon the arts and humanities. The arts and humanities have always occupied an ambivalent place within the Enlightenment narrative of progress, and squeezing them into this narrative contorts certain fundamental traits of these subjects - traits such as creativity, imagination, play, satire. These are not inherently progressive forces but digressive, discursive, subversive, and all the more valuable for that.

"Creativity", "imagination", "play", "satire": ultimately, we have to beware that these - rather than "progress" - do not become the real dirty words in the arts and humanities.

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