November 7, 2013

In Praise of the Counterpunchers

"Please, Sir. I want some more."

The humanities are in retreat. For years science and technology have been running roughshod over the arts in the nation's colleges and universities, a thrashing turning now into rout.

This is hardly news. A consistent string of news articles and commentaries have documented the humanities' decline, including an especially downbeat dispatch a little over a week ago in the New York Times

In June a burst of coverage greeted the release of "The Heart of the Matter," an earnest series of recommendations and equally earnest short film produced under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Backed by a prestige-dripping commission of actors, journalists, musicians, directors, academics, jurists, executives and politicians, "The Heart of the Matter" sounded what the Times called a "rallying cry against the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford." In our race for results, the commission urged, the quest for meaning must never be abandoned.

Alas, it's a reflection of the triumph of technique that earnestness at this point doesn't begin to cut it. Celebrity endorsements won't reverse the trend, either. The truth is that the humanities have been losing this fight for centuries. And while they still have a place at the table, like Oliver Twist, the paucity of their portion will always leave them begging for more.  

In my book I describe four characteristics that define the fundamental nature of technology. One of those characteristics is continuous expansion. Technique always seeks to widen its sphere of influence; it is never content with stasis. As the political scientist Langdon Winner put it, “technology goes where it has never been. Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched.” 

Another defining characteristic of the nature of technology is its aggressive single-mindedness. Individual technologies can be subtle and flexible, but overall technology drives forward toward its goal without the slightest consideration of such niceties as fairness, good will or the common good. "Technique worships nothing, respects nothing," Jacques Ellul said. "It can be accepted or rejected. If it is accepted, subjection to its laws necessarily follows."   

These two principles help explain why the humanities have declined. Like a bully on the playground, technique is pushing them aside. The “creative class,” to use Richard Florida’s term, will thrive only to the extent it is able to produce products that satisfy the purposes of technique.

The humanities’ diminishment is in direct proportion to technique’s ascension, an ascension that has increased at an exponential rate since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Over the past several decades the social sciences tried to justify their existence by adopting “scientific” methodologies, concessionary moves that failed to arrest their dwindling enrollments. Meanwhile psychology has been subsumed by pharmacology and literature professors are applying Big Data techniques to analyze Elizabethan novels.

The Material Girl

None of this is to say that technique’s advance has taken place without human participation and assent. To the contrary, although we pay lip service to our interest in meaning, we humans simply respond more immediately and more directly to the sorts of tangible things that technique produces, the more direct and immediate the better. Madonna had it right, and her timing was excellent. We do indeed live in a material world, and it's getting more material by the minute.  

The historian of ideas Arthur Lovejoy anticipated Madonna's perception when he delineated the distinction between the "official philosophy" that dominates Western culture and the philosophy that men and women, in their heart of hearts, actually believe. The former testifies to the existence of realities superior to those of everyday existence; the latter clings to realities somewhat closer to hand. As emotionally appealing as the "metaphysical pathos" of the official philosophy might be, Lovejoy said, most people will always harbor at least a scintilla of doubt, "since they have never been able to deny to the things disclosed by the senses a genuine and imposing and highly important realness."

Alfred North Whitehead offered a more succinct expression of the same idea. "The basis of all authority," he said, "is the supremacy of fact over thought."  

Technology will dominate, then, but the humanities will never be crushed completely. One reason that's so is their effectiveness as counterpunchers. If intangibility is their weakness, they command the power of resentment. Eloquence, anger and humor are the tools with which the artist exacts revenge.

Francis Bacon
One of the early aggressors against whom the seekers of Higher Truth had to defend themselves was Francis Bacon. His introduction of the scientific method was accompanied by an unending string of attacks on the philosophers of ancient Greece for their worthless navel-gazing. Like children, he said, "they are prone to talking, and incapable of generation, their wisdom being loquacious and unproductive of effects." The "real and legitimate goal of the sciences," Bacon added, "is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches."

Jonathan Swift
Legions of scientific wannabes followed Bacon's lead to become dedicated experimental tinkerers in whatever the Enlightenment's version of garages might have been. Meanwhile Jonathan Swift stood to one side and argued, with droll, often scatological amusement, that the emperor had no clothes. Those who read Gulliver's Travels in the days before literature classes were eliminated may recall Gulliver's visits to the Academies of Balnibarbi (parodies of Salomon's House, the utopian research center envisioned in Bacon's New Atlantis), where scientists labored to produce sunshine from cucumbers and to reverse the process of digestion by turning human excrement into food. Embraced in greeting by the filth-encrusted investigator conducting the latter experiment, Gulliver remarked parenthetically that this had been "a Compliment I could well have excused."

C.P. Snow
A more recent battle in what might be called the Arena of Empiricism unfolded in 1959, when C.P. Snow presented his famous lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution." The cultures to which the title referred were those of literary intellectuals on the one hand and of scientists on the other. While it's true Snow criticized the scientists for knowing little more of literature than Dickens, by far the bulk of his disdain was reserved for the intellectuals. Sounding a lot like Bacon, Snow said the scientists had "the future in their bones," while the ranks of literature were filled with "natural Luddites" who "wished the future did not exist."

F.R. Leavis
Again, a partisan of the humanities launched a spirited counterattack, this one fueled not by satire but by undiluted rage. Manning the barricades was F. R. Leavis, a longtime professor of literature at Downing College, Cambridge. Leavis was well known in English intellectual circles as a staunch defender of the unsurpassed sublimity of the great authors, whom he saw as holding up an increasingly vital standard of excellence in the face of an onrushing tide of modern mediocrity. Snow's lecture represented to Leavis the perfect embodiment of that mediocrity, and thus a clarion call to repel the barbarians at the gate. 

From his opening paragraph Leavis's attack was relentless. Snow's lecture demonstrated "an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style," its logic proceeding "with so extreme a naïveté of unconsciousness and irresponsibility that to call it a movement of thought is to flatter it." Snow made the classic mistake of those who saw salvation in industrial progress, Leavis said: he equated wealth with well being. The results of such a belief were on display for all to see in modern America: "the energy, the triumphant technology, the productivity, the high standard of living and the life impoverishment—the human emptiness; emptiness and boredom craving alcohol—of one kind or another."

Steve Jobs
The uncompromising spleen of Leavis's tirade certainly outdid the conciliatory platitudes of the "The Heart of the Matter," but to no greater effect. Neither fire and brimstone nor earnest entreaty will rescue the humanities from their fate. Meaning will remain the underdog in a world that increasingly demands the goods to which it has increasingly grown accustomed. Even Steve Jobs's self-proclaimed skill at integrating technology with the liberal arts wasn't as great an achievement in co-existence as is commonly believed. The appeal of artful technology is less a product of its art than its technology. Elegant design is great, but people pay for gadgets mainly because they work.

One hears often in response to the current hegemony of science and technology that the pendulum will eventually swing back toward the humanities, restoring them to their place in the sun. Perhaps, but the pendulum has been swinging in the opposite direction for a very long time now, and it still seems to be gaining momentum. All the more reason to enjoy and applaud the well-aimed salvo from the sidelines.

Madonna Image: Bob Peak/TV Guide

©Doug Hill, 2013

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