I have been thinking about the issues engaged in the pages below for close to a decade and a half. Since assuming the directorship of the University of California Humanities Research institute I have had a somewhat unique lookout post from which to observe the challenges and changes facing the humanities, and the academy more generally, across ten research universities, nationally and internationally. There have been repeated recessions and budget cuts over this period, a national trauma leading to intensified securitization and its accompanying militarization, rapid technological developments conjuring novel modes of social interaction as well as research and learning practices. All of this, along with the expanding managerialism and administrology, creeping professionalization and instrumentalization in career development, the public emphasis on STEM and the social disenchantment with the humanities has called for a deep rethinking of the role, scope, and indeed place of the humanities in the academy, and more broadly in the social register.

I began composing what has eventually become this essay some four years ago prompted by a conference in which I was invited to participate at Berkeley organized by Chris Newfield, Colleen Lye, and James Vernon. These reflections have gone through many iterations since, motivated by ongoing development across the academy and beyond, in the US and elsewhere. The argument represented here has benefitted from extensive discussion with close friends and colleagues over this time, and has been repeatedly revised from the insights and challenges as a result.

I extend a profound sense of gratitude to all those who contributed to my thinking. Ackbar Abbas, Achille Mbembe, and Saree Makdisi read and commented extensively on earlier drafts. Conversations with many led me to reflect on and sometimes to revise points already formulated: Wendy Brown, John Seely Brown, Sarah Nuttall, Cathy Davidson, Ann Pendleton-Julian, Philomena Essed, Angela Davis, Susan Searls Giroux, Chris Newfield, Colleen Nye, Philipp Schmidt, Nishant Shah, Connie Yowell, Diane Harris, Bernd Scherer, Diren Valayden, Bill Ladusaw, Carolyn de la Pena, Jim Clifford, and Kelly Ann Brown.

I have been privileged to be part of a small group at UC Irvine charged with discussing how humanistic learning across all stages of education, research, and intellectual culture on campus might be reconstituted for our contemporary and future moments. I have learned a great deal from these collaborative deliberations with Georges van den Abbeele, Kavita Philip, Aaron James, Jim Lee, Julia Lupton, and Penny Portillo.

The publication design would not have been possible but for Jeff Brazil, and Maritess Steffen fashioned a wonderfully unique platform for the piece. Maia Krause and Anna Finn provided invaluable editorial assistance and proof-reading. Arielle Read repeatedly made it possible to put aside administrative obligations for time to think and write.

The mistakes are all mine.

It is now a truism to say that universities have been undergoing profound changes.

The challenges to the material conditions of academic life have been palpable, jarring, and to some degree debilitating. The conceptual shifts in how the university is being thought about are far less visible and mostly unrecognized. While everyone in the academy is being impacted, the changes are raising more basic challenges for the humanities than for most others. The challenges have surfaced long-simmering questions about what the humanities do, in research and teaching. In short, they press us to respond to widespread public confusion, if not skepticism, concerning what the humanities are, what work we do, and not just how humanists find the material means to continue what we ordinarily (take ourselves to) do in the name of humanities.


[ I ]

First, consider how the material bases of the public university have shifted of late. Financial support for universities has veered dramatically from public to private contributions, consistent with the general pressure to diminish government funding for a wide range of public programs and to predicate support for most any social program—any social good, more broadly—on private preferences, whether individual or corporate. If until recently it was thought that private preferences are molded through public definition, expression, and constraint, the forces we have come to characterize under the sign of neoliberalism have inverted the causality.  Increasingly, as Randy Martin astutely observes, the public now is “derivative of private values” (Martin 2011: 161). All universities, public and private, have become major fundraisers, dependent increasingly on private giving, non-state revenue streams (including steady fee increases), and the interests of private and privatizing determination.

Frank Donoghue has summarized this trend succinctly, indicating that public universities have devolved from fully state supported to partially state assisted, and now more or less just state located institutions. Location is not unimportant, to be sure, as the state continues to own the land and buildings of public institutions, but everything else—from operations to education, research to recreation—is now funded to a larger and larger degree by other revenue sources. Medical research faculty seem to represent the leading edge of a trend here: they are increasingly expected to cover the costs of their own salaries by bringing in external funds, and their annual compensation may be tied to the level of funds they secured in the preceding year.


State Funding for UC in 2000


State Funding for UC in 2013


% increase in California college tuition,

Over the past decade, for example, the University of California system, as the highest-ranking public university system in the US, has seen state support spiral downwards from 27 percent of its annual budget in 2000 (then $15b) currently to roughly 10 percent (of almost $24b), and continue to drop year by year. The system itself is now under (partly self-imposed) pressure as a system, in favor of discrete and competing individual campuses, at once undercutting what makes UC unique and distinctive. Tuition and fees generate 13 percent of the annual budget, outstripping state contributions. In FY 2011-12 alone, the University system faced a decrease in state support of $750m (in 2012-3 $250m was reinstated, but on condition that there would be no additional fee increases). This latter cut is roughly the total annual budget of a medium sized campus, and came on top of already debilitating cuts in years immediately prior to 2011. Student fees increased by a total of more than 40 percent in the two years from 2010-12 (doubling overall in the last half decade), and dependency on major gifts, technology transfer, and external grants has grown exponentially. Individual students are paying more in total fees for the first time than per student contribution from the state. Academic units are looking at all sorts of ways to generate external revenue streams. Some academic units are charging registration fees for many of the conferences run throughout the year, occasionally even to members of their own academic communities.

The UC system differs from the general trend perhaps only in the size of the figures involved. Forty-one of the 50 states in the US cut funding to public higher education in FY 2011-12. Public institutions like the University of New Hampshire had its state funding cut more than 40 percent; the University of Washington 26 percent; and the University of Florida 25 percent (Reich 2012).

Cuts in state funding, 2011-12

University of New Hampshire


University of Washington


University of Florida


In 2012-13, tuition in public higher education covered close to 50 percent of the costs, up from 23 percent in 1987 and a third just over a decade ago (Kelderman 2013). And while over the past year the average growth in US university fee increases has slowed to 2.9 percent, the lowest in 30 years, students themselves are now paying a larger proportion of these fees, while the slowing in rate of growth is likely temporary. The obvious beneficiaries of public university fee increases overall have been the better endowed, private research institutions with a larger, wealthier, and longer-standing donor base. The widespread trend reinforces the sense that we are in a deep structural shift, not just the usual ups and downs of boom and bust economies. The overall loser is the public at large, as the effects are already showing up as a less well-educated, less prepared and thoughtful, and, yes, less competitive citizenry and workforce. Once a ticket to a solid middle class life, a college degree, while still bestowing an advantage in an increasingly cut-throat job market, no longer guarantees employment, let alone a long term lifestyle.

The reasons for these shifts have been multiple. On the public side of things, we have witnessed 30 years of growing, grindingly persistent, gnawing attacks on public funding for anything other than institutions of control or securitization (military, policing, prisons, homeland security). These attacks have been predicated on a steady erosion of the very conception of “public good” underpinning such support (Santos 2010). Other than the asserted commitment to keeping citizens secure, little else seems uncontestedly to count as a public good. Security itself actually is justified less as a public good than as a sort of baseline Hobbesian individual right, a more general right from which the right to bear arms is derivative, and that for which the state supposedly was socially contracted into existence. Even something as basic as health has been reduced to individualized, private concern: the virulent attacks on “Obamacare,” accordingly, have been fueled by its supposed intrusion upon individual freedoms.

Now among an increasingly demographically bifurcated population, where the better off population is aging and diminishing in size and the younger, poorer, expanding population tends to be black and increasingly Latino (nearly half the US population under age 20 today is not white), vocal resistance to public funding for education has grown notably sharper. In the absence of a shared conception of the public good, older wealthier folk wonder why they should pay for the schooling of those with whom they share little if anything. (As in almost all cases of such narrow self-interest, if they widened their purview just a touch they might find some obvious answers: an educated and prosperous junior generation will keep Social Security solvent, if that too hasn’t already been privatized along the way, while more readily affording the cost of home purchase, and generally making a contribution benefitting social conditions overall.)

These pressures on any commitment to the public good, including public education, are thrown into sharp relief by current trends in income disparities. A recent study has shown that the Bush era tax cuts, from 2000-2008, diminished total income in the US by $2.7 trillion rather than increasing it as tax cut rationalizers have been insisting. In 2008 average income was down 5.8 percent compared to 2000. At the same time one in every $8 of tax reductions went to the top one in 1000 taxpayers (those earning $2 million per year or more). These tax reductions were extended by President Obama in December 2010 for an additional two years under Republican pressure, though they have since been reversed. In the mid-1970s, the top one percent owned 20 percent of the nation’s wealth. Today it is closer to 35 percent. The top 20 percent own 80 percent, the bottom 20 percent something like one percent (Johnson 2010). To put this in more personal terms, 20 percent of all income reported to the IRS is generated by 1.4 million people (roughly a third of one percent of the population). The 400 wealthiest Americans own wealth equal to the bottom half of all Americans (that’s 155 million people)! At the bottom end of the scale, 70 million people (more than 25 percent) generate just 12.75 percent of US income (McCormally 2010). And the racial gap in family wealth between whites and blacks and Latinos, respectively, has spiraled to the highest since records were first compiled in 1984, now 20:1 (from 12:1) for the former, and to 18:1 for the latter.


America’s Wealth Distribution

35%U.S. wealth owned by top 1%
80%U.S. wealth owned by top 20%
12.75%U.S. income generated by bottom 25%

States, moreover, have often made bad funding decisions, both intentionally and inadvertently undercutting support for public education across all sectors: Balancing state budgets has been achieved increasingly by accounting gimmicks and larger borrowing, increasing future interest costs as a proportion of the budget and forcing spiraling cuts in social programs. Prisons have been built and filled at great social cost, sapping the treasury. California now spends more on its prisons than on higher education. Professional sports stadiums have been funded with no projection about future cost. Some are now demolished or dramatically underused and on which significant debt remains: In the case of the New Jersey Meadowlands, demolished not long ago, there remains unpaid debt of $226m for what is now a parking lot for the new stadium built in its ghostly shadow while the state cut 15 percent of its contribution to Rutgers University in 2010-11, to the lowest contribution level in more than 15 years. In Seattle’s case, the demolished stadium left $80m yet to be paid off while the flagship University of Washington across town is being cut to the bone.

Increasingly, Republican controlled state legislatures are seeking to address the budget woes resulting from this unsustainable logic of tax cuts, giveaways, and incoherent fiscal planning by severely cutting social programs, especially those supporting poorer citizens. They have dramatically undercut benefits for public service workers, and slashed support for public education—even while extending unaffordable corporate tax cuts and dogmatically refusing to raise taxes or to allow tax cuts, exemptions, or loopholes to expire. They invariably argue that budget and tax cuts will lead to increased job creation and so eventually higher tax revenues even though recent studies have indicated that those states that have raised taxes in the past two to three years have increased job creation while those cutting taxes have lost jobs.

Education tends to constitute a major proportion of a state’s annual budget (50 percent in the case of California), so where bad planning and economic downturn are allowed to result in dramatic budget deficits, education becomes a major target for cuts. Even if K-12 education suffers disproportionate reductions relative to universities, this will manifest in future indirect impacts on the quality of training for students eventually showing up in campus classes. Moreover, a more educated work force tends to lead ultimately to higher salaries and so higher tax revenues, thus benefitting social conditions over the longer term.

There are more direct, one could say self-inflicted pressures on university budgets, of course. College tuition increased by a whopping 439 percent in the 25 years between 1982 and 2007, far outstripping inflation. Across the academy, administrative positions have increased at triple the rate of annual academic tuition raises (cf. Ginsberg 2013). Law school tuition increases have soared at four times the rate of academic inflation (over the past decade academic inflation has averaged three to four times that of inflation generally). Every institution no doubt has its own stories of embarrassing fiscal irresponsibility or ineptitude. At UC, in the past few years—at a time of urgent fiscal restraint, salary freezes, and a furlough plan for all staff and faculty, the University paid almost $700,000 for the then UC President’s housing rental and repair. After considerable public outcry, his housing reportedly continued to cost the University approximately $120,000 (even though he was earning well over $500,000 a year in remuneration; he has stepped down as of September 2013, replaced by former Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano whose contractual demands seem a touch more modest). In addition, 200 senior executives at the University of California threatened to sue over limiting their pension calculations to a baseline of $245,000 though they earn considerably more, at an annual additional cost of $5.5 million to the University at a time the state and University systems were facing deep and painful budget cuts. How is a legislature likely to react as a result when approached for increased funding or a pass on cuts?

Furthermore, prompted by state legislators and widespread media reports shaping self-interest, market-savvy students increasingly are gravitating to training likely to prepare them for available job opportunities at higher salaries. A recent survey revealed student preferences for jobs on Wall Street and at investment banks even over medicine, while numbers of students pursuing degrees in bio-tech, computing, and engineering are all up. There is some controversy about whether this has entailed diminished majors in the humanities. Overall, humanities majors relative to others decreased in the 1970s and 1980s from 17 percent to eight-to-nine percent, and have held steady since at eight percent. English and History numbers are more or less set (though English majors this past year seem to have dipped some), while more students than in the past are signing up for Film and Media Studies (though not always housed in humanities). Even numbers in foreign languages have increased (predictably, Arabic and Chinese dramatically but German just over two percent). While it may be encouraging to see increased numbers, it is also the case that the increases are relative to past figures for these areas of study and result largely from increased student enrollment overall, not increases relative to non-humanistic subject matter. At the same time, graduate student numbers in the humanities are distinctly on the decline in the face of diminished academic positions and lack of funding support.

Falsely perceived as fiscally inefficient, budget guzzlers not generators, the humanities have come under increasing pressure, and are certainly no longer considered as central to the university’s mission as they once were, and in some cases have become increasingly invisible. The now departed University of California President remarked repeatedly that “[w]e have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department?” (The right answer: English faculty, who generate enough revenue in student fees to cover not only their own salaries but some of the Engineering faculty’s too). With occasional exception, University Presidents and Chancellors, who are less and less likely to be humanists than they once were and even if personally conversant in literature or music, nevertheless invariably leave out the humanities when publicly listing the major contributing units across the university. This oversight often overlooks the fact that units such as Critical Theory, Comparative Literature, English, History, or Religious Studies can nationally outrank most if not all others on a given campus. They are in good company, as key reports on the nation’s education, obsessed as they have universally become with keeping the country globally competitive, suffer the same oversight (see, for example, Spellings 2006).


 [ II ]

All this raises the larger question: What are universities (supposed to be) for? And, perhaps better yet, who are they for? Have there been correlating shifts in how the public and legislators have come to conceive of university education?

The dramatic post-war expansion of American universities took place especially from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s, as the population expanded and states sought to provide affordable education to those considered citizens. This expansion of higher education provision extended the commitment to a school-educated workforce that marked the first half of the twentieth century in the US, increasing productivity and prosperity. College education was a cornerstone of the state committed to supporting and sustaining the social welfare of its citizens, ensuring better quality of life, greater contributions to social security because of presumably higher lifetime earnings, and the lower likelihood of needing unemployment benefits. In sum, a university education, and indeed a well-educated citizenry, were considered public goods contributing immeasurably to overall social wellbeing.

Arguably, the understanding underpinning college growth across this period was that the university should serve to cultivate rounded, middle class subjects, a society of free individuals (cf. Harpham 2011a), while also serving as centers of research fueling post-war expansion and global economic dominance. In the latter sense they offered a knowledge base for a comprehension of the world and America’s relation to it consistent with expansionary economic and political interests. Eisenhower was sufficiently cognizant of the key contribution of academic research to “the military-industrial complex” that he had added the adjective “academic” to the single, if memorable, use of this concept in the original draft of his departing Presidential speech.

Humanities and the interpretive social sciences served important functions in the mix of middle class cultivation and worldly, geo-political, and geo-cultural understanding at a time of global expansion and deepening economic globalization. They offered the globally expansive state possibilities to provide foreign language learning and cultural familiarization for its agents and corporate citizens to complement its awesome military might. In fact, Title VI of the National Defense Education Act of 1958 grew out of this imperative, seeking to widen language learning dramatically (prior to this, for instance, just 23 people in the US were formally learning Hindi!).

The Humanities Matter! 4humanities.org

This sense of the university has given way more recently to the contemporary transformations in class structure both locally and more broadly. The poor are getting poorer and growing in number while the rich have gotten ridiculously (even unproductively) rich though remain a relatively small proportion of the overall population, as the figures above attest. The standard claim that modernization, and the American model in particular, is built upon the sustained stability of a broad, educated middle class is now being squeezed out as a reality if not quite yet as a staple of the social imaginary. This is not to say that the middle class is dead, or close to it, but that it is under enormous pressure. It probably was always smaller than presumed, covering up the divide between blue collar and professional working classes in the name of a generic, patriotic (if not altogether classless) American Dream. The Great Global Recession, the burst housing bubble, ongoing joblessness, and the enormous constraints under which state budgets especially are laboring have placed these tensions in sharp relief, revealing that a significant proportion of the working class has always been vulnerable, at the thickening edge just a paycheck away from further erosion, a lake drying up inch by inch, season by season. Public sector workers are now being targeted also. And decently paying middle class jobs, those presupposing a college education and especially involving more or less routinized work, have been increasingly replaced over the past two decades by computerization (Krugman 2011).

Consider these pressures: The broad working middle classes in the US have received no effective wage increase in the more than three decades since President Reagan took power in 1981. While inflation generally has been modest over the past twenty years, it has of course increased; but health care costs have spiraled as have the costs of higher education (both by double digits annually for all of the past ten years). Average inflation adjusted wages today consequently are lower than they were 30 years ago. Average household debt in the US now is twice that of any other industrialized country and average household savings is last among industrialized countries (under $5000) and one-tenth of the highest (Japan). US investment per GDP is lowest among any industrialized country, while it has the highest differential between CEO and worker average pay, by far. The income gap between richest and poorest hit the highest it has ever been in 2009: 14.5-1 compared to 13.6 in 2008 and double what it was in 1967. The rising gap was most notable in bigger cities. The US has the lowest union membership among industrialized countries, the highest poverty level by a considerable stretch, with the highest level of children in poverty and highest deaths from malnutrition, most notably among women. It has the highest health care costs, highest doctors’ incomes by 50 percent, and lowest percentage covered by public health care. Life expectancy is third-lowest and infant mortality as well as that of 15-25 year olds the highest. The US has the largest percentage of population in prison, the highest murder rate, and the lowest voter participation among industrialized states.

The impact of these astonishing trends is already showing up in the transforming of what the university increasingly is conceived for. Until the 1980s, blue-collar families could support their children in college without incurring potentially crippling debt, and so relish the prospect that each future generation would be better off than their parents had been. Today, college education is placing average graduating students in serious long-term debt (average graduating debt for undergraduates is roughly $26,000), eroding earning power and making it likely that most students today will be worse off economically than their parents.

The information economy has entailed a shift away from manufacturing employment to a bifurcated economy of technically driven, higher paying information and financing jobs with good benefits, on one side, and service labor with few or no benefits, on the other. The work force for the former is largely white and Asian, for the latter black and brown. As neoliberalization has sought to privatize public institutions, it has moved to undercut public funding for all forms of welfare provision, including education. Just as individuals are considered responsible to provide and manage their own retirement accounts and health insurance, so they are increasingly held responsible to cover the full costs of higher education. Increasingly, those in a position to pay their own way are more concerned to fund political representation to support the defunding of the heterogeneous public sphere, including education, in favor of extending their disposable income and the lifestyle it supports. State of the art gyms and other recreational facilities are de rigueur for contemporary college life. Sports teams led more often than not by coaches earning many times more than faculty are expected, if not required as modes of student attraction and philanthropic support (both, more often than not, mistakenly). Universities are just now adjusting to the new age (cf. Newfield 2013).

The academy, accordingly, is well along the way in being remodeled to educate for a purpose no longer that of post-war America. Increasingly we are seeing a commitment, more or less explicit and unqualified, to instrumentalism, technicism, and professionalism in training. This is consistent also with the growing demands for academic departments and units to pay as much of their own way as possible by generating external revenue sources. In the name of remaining globally competitive, economically viable, and scientifically and technologically dominant, professional training programs are being stressed: engineering, computer sciences, business, law, nursing, criminal justice, tourism and hotel management. In a conversation with former Secretary of Education, William Bennett, the Governor of North Carolina, Pat McCreary, insisted that state support for universities should be directed solely to those programs that would generate jobs, not to courses in the liberal arts or gender studies (Huckabee 2013). (Curiously, Bennett, whose Ph.D. is in philosophy from the public University of Texas at Austin, expressed no disagreement.) Medicine continues to enjoy an overwhelmingly independent status within the academy, driven by a mix of its self-sustaining financial power and the value we continue to attach to health and its specialized knowledge base. The certification the university provides is taken increasingly as a badge of technical competence rather than of well-rounded judgment, critical skill, or cultural erudition. If one polled freshly graduated students today about the most significant piece of knowledge they gained from their years in college, the response is far more likely to include statistics, programming, or investment strategies than it is writing, critical reasoning, the parsing of poetry, or even language learning.

Culturally, for all the conventional stress on diversity—diversity, but not too much, and of the “right” kind—it could be said that there is less and less concern today with demographic equity, distributive justice, or racial equality. The wealth gap between whites and racial others in the US has expanded dramatically to the widest it has been since the Census began tracking the differences in 1984 (see Census, 2009). Indeed, the gap has doubled over the past three years alone, having narrowed a touch in the preceding two decades. The trends towards improved racial access have been dramatically slowed, if not often reversed, exacerbated by the steady rolling back of affirmative action. College students, consequently, are now being prepared for the sort of constrained diversity they are likely to find in conventional professional employment in the sort of professional positions they can expect to occupy.

The humanities and interpretive social sciences are under pressure in other ways as well. As university administrations have ballooned and become more managerial, the have become peopled less and less with those trained in the humanities, and so, for the most part, less responsive to humanistic value in university education. The proliferation of think tanks, and of the blogosphere not least with regard to matters social, has discounted the university as the forum for public debate. It has become, at most, one among many sites, no longer a privileged one and reaching a relatively small and increasingly class specific and sometimes solipsistic audience. Open source commentary on cultural matters has become very robust; communities and intellectual communities are now far more interwoven, and less distant than in the past.

Technologies of globalization have made possible virtual global learning environments. There is the still small but rapidly growing popularity of DIY Universities (e.g., P2PU; Singularity University), and informal learning networks (the Public School Brussels, the Free/Slow University of Warsaw, the Center for Possible Studies, Copenhagen Free University, University of the People, Edu Factory, the Factory of Ideas in Salvador, Bahia, the Supercool School, the University in Openness, the Toronto School of Creativity and Inquiry). The initial appeal of such experiments along with the partial successes of the “open courseware” initiative and lessons learned from the limits of traditional distance learning models have led some prominent institutions of higher learning to spawn as well as now commit to developing novel “massively open online courses” (MOOCs).

Here Stanford University faculty have led the way in spinning off for-profit MOOC initiatives, along with MIT in partnership with Harvard (EdX) and others offering a non-profit version of free courses. While the initial courses were concentrated especially in computer science and artificial intelligence, they have now proliferated across most all knowledge domains, some attracting more than 100,000 worldwide registrants for a term-long course most of whom drop out well before completing the course. Georgia Tech has just started offering a completely online Master’s degree in computer science using Udacity’s MOOC platform, and other ventures along these lines are either in the works or just coming online.

Design: surletoit.com for THATcamp Paris 2012

These new online ventures are no longer just talking head videos, as they were when first on offer a year or so ago. Today, they make available interactive engagements through creative course materials with instructional support staff, as well as with other groups of course registrants. They have been criticized for designing the learning components of each course in standardized 12-minute segments to mirror the presumptive attention span of the contemporary student. These dramatic new developments are spinning off venture capital start-ups by the likes of Coursera (www.coursera.com) and NovoEd (https://novoed.com) offering a widening range of courses taught sometimes by notable scholars including those in the humanities and social sciences. They are also developing stable platform infrastructure to support the development of college coursework (cf. Udacity (www.udacity.com)). While hardly inexpensive to develop (the University of Pennsylvania has estimated spending $50,000 per MOOC course, which seems low on reflection) or to sustain over time (every Assistant Professor foregone will be replaced by computer programmers and systems administrators earning roughly as much), universities and investors have grown excited at the prospects of the revenue generation they promise. The challenges traditional colleges and universities are now facing have suddenly become more complex, though to date none has yet realized the promise. And some, such as the San Jose State University Udacity experiment, touted at the outset by California’s Governor Jerry Brown, has stumbled out of the starting blocks and been placed on hold.

Notice here the global location and trans-border reach of these initiatives. Learning has the potential to become as borderless as multinational organizations. Faculty, teaching assistants, and students registered can literally live anywhere, and course activities such as virtual study groups can run anywhere and anytime. If anything, these instances have become the reality and reach, premise and promise of global learning, perhaps the hope of the university—and too the humanities—without conditions, the belittling segmenting of learning capsules notwithstanding. It is becoming increasingly likely that a student, located anywhere in the world, could register at a university remotely located to purchase its brand, fashion her own curriculum to suit her projected professional interests, complete the selected coursework—her degree—on her own time and at her own pace. The university would provide the assessment and accreditation, perhaps by issuing a series of digital badges to demonstrate to a prospective employer her learning pathways, skills acquired, and degree of proficiency.

MOOCs have come under quite withering attack of late. This has been driven partly by negative reaction to the hype of the new and anxiety at having increasing numbers of faculty made irrelevant. But it has also been a more considered reaction to some base assumptions about the model of effective learning on which the early examples of MOOC courses seem to have been predicated. Udacity offers online students interaction with Stanford graduate teaching assistants they hire to supplement the named talking head teaching stars they employ to head most of the MOOC classes, at once undercutting available teaching assistant positions for those at the universities who might be offering the MOOC in its name (San Jose State is a prime example here at the undergraduate level, and Georgia State at the graduate level). Opportunities further redound to students and faculty at the wealthier institutions now lost to those at more fiscally challenged public ones. In addition, MOOCs are not inexpensive to produce and run, and the likelihood of their realizing their projected profits is remote, not least given their 6 to 12 percent average completion rate. When free courses become fee based, the numbers are likely to fall, and their quality more keenly assessed against face-to-face college instruction. And the talking head, sage on the stage doing an expert brain dump before either an empty lecture hall or completely passive students has long been critiqued as a paradigm of effective education. The widely circulated open letter, by the San Jose State Philosophy Department (2013) denouncing the presumptions in having largely working class students forced to sit passively listening to an interesting but hardly definitive lecture on social justice by communitarian professor Michael Sandel to his Harvard students, of all the ironies, captured something of the concerns at play.

More broadly, though, the prospect of self-designed curricula to suit individuated needs, while perhaps appealing in one direction, comes at a cost in others. For one, it assumes that young adults with little professional experience would know what is universally best for them either career-wise or as well-rounded adult citizens capable of making wise judgments in the face of challenging circumstances. For another, it undercuts not only the value of face-to-face engagements for learning, but also the sort of sustained social networking on which many college students often draw both personally and professionally pretty much throughout their lives. And most importantly for the account with which I am directly concerned here, it skews against exactly the sort of collective and interactive dialogic and discursive analysis on which much learning across the human sciences depends.

In response, MOOC providers themselves have been experimenting with different modes of knowledge delivery. And if there is virtue to the unsettlement “MOOC mania” (Goldberg 2013) has caused, it is to have raised in public and pressing ways the question of what institutional forms make for effective learning. The lecture form, so dominant especially in large class settings, has come under scrutiny, and there is now at least discussion about the “flipped classroom,” about how best to use face-to-face classroom time interactively with supplemental engagements in students’ own time. Universities almost universally have been looking to online capacities to solve some of their challenges: in the face of shrinking budgets and expansive student demand, how to provide courses required for students to graduate in a timely fashion; how to generate additional revenue streams to cover costs, to experiment and expand; how to have a more globally competitive presence in the educational marketplace; and so on. Driving these concerns has been the instrumental question of how most effectively to solve existing administrative problems. Here the technology drives the educational mission (cf. Exoo and Exoo 2013). The deeper question, rather, is how effective learning happens, and to turn to technology as learning enablement. Different people learn most effectively in different ways. The crucial point is not to have technology drive the learning, reproducing uniformity in the face of heterogeneous learning capacities. Rather, it is to have effective modes of learning determine the best use of technology, its development, and applications.

Within the humanities, more resources are being channeled to the digital, which to some degree has started to transform activities in the academic humanities, their modes of production, even, to some smaller degree, assessment conceptions. Digital humanities is in some ways genuinely new, opening up innovative possibilities and terrifically insightful and helpful applications facilitating strikingly productive and imaginative research and teaching possibilities. It is certainly new in its multi-mediation, in searching, accessibility, in possibilities for (demonstrating) connectedness and relationality, in visualizing data, and in the capacity for reinvention. And it has given rise to new objects of analysis such as software studies, platform studies, screen studies, and gaming studies, cultural analytics, or production of and reflection on electronic literatures and poetry.

Yet digital humanities has introduced a sometime divide between the get-its and the technologically unenthused, between let’s call them techno-nerds and textual purists. Its innovativeness for the humanities can also be overstated. While it has posed, and has the potential for posing, genuinely new questions about seemingly settled subject matters, it has served at once to reinforce some very conventional thinking and practice in the humanities. Curiously, it has helped both to re-assert a quite conventional, even conservative archive of digitized material and thinking—no more Foucault, a self-professed digital humanist seeking to advocate for the humanities cried not so long ago on a listserve, with no resistance from an otherwise quite varied audience of fellow travelers—and to fuel a significant resurgence of formalism conceptually, analytically, perhaps too pedagogically. By contrast, there is much less so far within academic humanities of the sort of reflection about how digital media generally and social networking applications in particular have changed how we live our lives, communicate and connect, work and play, how we think of ourselves as persons and as social beings, in short, what we do with the technological and social media and what it is doing to and for us (for a very thoughtful take on these issues, see Zadie Smith’s review of the movie, “The Social Network,” and of Facebook more generally, Smith 2010).

To invoke digital humanities, then, as the—or even a—compelling solution to the current institutional challenges of the humanities reinforces a now thoroughly debunked notion of technologically determined progress. At the same time, the humanities have to recognize that the digital has profoundly impacted how we engage in the practices of the humanities. After the digital, the humanities can no longer be practiced as though the digital revolution never transpired. It is analogous to the transformation of the commonplace of painting after photography. In the wake of the digital, how we read and write have altered, our practices of searching and archive formation, our ways of relating, of critical commentary, our temporalities and modes of relation, the contrast between the “real” and the “virtual” have all been profoundly affected. This is not just a matter of content, or of volume, but a profound qualitative shift in modes of socio-human engagement and relation. If the human has been so dramatically impacted by the digital in all its constitution, relation, and expression, how can the humanities not be significantly challenged by these changes to their principal object of scrutiny as well as in their own analytic practices?

All this unsettlement has been accompanied by the perception that in the past two decades academic humanities themselves became more introverted, more technical in language and modes of analysis, more specialized and self-concerned. Much of academic humanities has grown more distant from “common” cultural life and exchange, from the cultural life worlds of the commons, even as they often focus on contemporary cultural “products” such as films, television programming, music, or cultural events. Humanities, as Lynn Hunt perceptively put it over a decade ago, have doubled down on specialized skills, both in their own practice and pedagogical insistence (Hunt 1998: 11).


[ III ]

How then, in the light of these material and conceptual shifts, do we think about the now predictable sorts of arguments in support of the humanities? Commentators generally identify four sorts of supporting arguments.

While no longer quite so confident, some still boldly seek to justify the humanities on grounds of their intrinsic value (sometimes called autotelism). Stanley Fish is probably the most public and pushy of such proponents today, stressing as he does that we should stick strictly to textual analysis and accounts of the different foundations of knowledge, for their own sakes and for no other reason (see, among others, Fish 2008). That humanists didn’t have to justify themselves explicitly in instrumentalist terms in the past simply indicated that until, say, the late 1960s, the humanities largely were taken both to reflect (upon) and to uphold prevailing high culture, if not also social structure overall.

Of course, there has long—always?—been a contrarian or counter-dominant strain within the humanities, from at least Socrates onwards. This increasingly critical and contrarian strand in the past half century has pushed against the dominant social trends that came to be identified with neoliberalism. Autotelism is at odds both with this critical intervention, whatever its effect, and with the sensibility of accounting and accountability, of pay as you go and revenue generation that, if unevenly, today prevails socially and perhaps imperils the academy as we once knew it. This intrinsic aversion to prevailing notions of expansive financialization and homogenizing managerialism associated with neoliberalism may be part of autotelism’s value, its unqualified commitment to what it takes as the humanities’ core conception. But that the aversion is at best implicit rather than a principled expression also makes it readily dismissible, and so too its downfall. On Fish’s view, in fact, extrinsic concerns such as aversion to financialization are irrelevant to intrinsic humanistic value: autotelism to the bitter end, which on this account is likely to be sooner rather than later.

At the same time, the “knowledge for its own sake” appeal cannot be limited to the humanities: it counts for all knowledge, not simply for a certain strain. Where, in any case, would one draw the line, conceptually and institutionally, between humanistic and non-humanistic knowledge? And so the “value added” instrumentalism supposedly attaching to professional or productive knowledge formation, no doubt overblown in its claimed universalization, nevertheless remains something of a challenge to a knowledge formation that eschews or fails to find (any?) instrumentalist appeal.

Second, the economistic position insists normatively that humanities enrollments cross subsidize science research and provide students with transferable skills for future professions. This supposed claim to cross-subsidization is probably overstated, or at least is never as baldly stated as this by university administrators. It is, at best, an assessment by defensive humanists critical of claims, usually by scientists, that humanities fail to pay their own way because they generate very little external funding. Administrative criteria, by contrast, are usually generally expressed: enrollment growth especially as a percentage of overall enrollment, increase in number of majors, larger rather than smaller administrative and intellectual units and classes, doing more with fewer resources including personnel, external revenue generation and stable revenue streams the university can count on, and the like.

The fact of the matter is that more humanists now have to sleep under the bridge than most others (maybe with the exception of the arts). The social sciences and the professionalizing engineering and computing sciences do pretty well on these general criteria. So these kinds of measure are weighted against us. I suspect that a sustained effort—a campaign—to broaden the criteria would likely be more effective than either simply thumbing our noses at or buckling under the prevailing ones. This at least seems to have been the strategy of some successful deans and humanistic advocates. But it is likely a strategy of hanging on by a thin thread, inheriting another’s much larger clothes and tailoring them to fit. The humanities bring in considerably less in external grants and endowment than the sciences, technology, and social sciences, to be sure. Nevertheless, the fee revenue generated and the relatively low per student costs in educating students in at least the traditionally conceived humanities make them less the dependent family member than is often assumed (Newfield 2008), though the heightened cost of digital humanities now pulls somewhat in the counter-direction.

A deeper question becomes evident here, to which I will return more fully at the close. Instead of repeatedly reacting to discomforting conditions and terms set elsewhere, does this moment of unsettlement offer the opportunity to rethink not just what and how we do what we do as humanists but also how we organize ourselves institutionally in intellectual and administrative terms? And, if so, how might those terms better be aligned with each other?

Third, the liberal emphasis on civics suggests the humanities train students for citizenship by developing their critical skills. Martha Nussbaums’s recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (I keep wanting to call this “Not for Sale”), best exemplifies the claim. Yet the commitment, at least in theory, is quite widespread: it was the centerpiece of the University of California’s Commission on Humanities in 2002-3, a report to the UC President, and it continues to fuel various national assessments on the humanities. One can find it also implicit in the NSF and NIH calls for social relevance as a criterion of all their research grantmaking.

Corporate representatives often extol the analytic and research skills of the humanities for (potential) employees. They still recognize the value to corporate activity of thinking coherently (if not too critically); of writing clearly and speaking convincingly; of recognizing arguments, their rhetorics of value and implication; of being able to parse the principles in reports, requests, and research; of being culturally literate and fluent in a foreign language in globally competitive environments; and perhaps also in being able to think comprehensively, to see the larger picture. For example, the University of California Irvine’s welcoming forum for undergraduate students in the humanities in Fall 2010 included two UCI humanities alumni, the head of Paramount Studios and the former Commissioner of Arena Football, both of whom repeatedly affirmed these virtues. The predictability of the claims from corporate representatives suggests these are widely held positions.

It is perhaps this set of trained capacities for which the humanities stand that continue to make humanities graduates at all levels of keen interest to globally competitive employers (Sternberg 2013). A senior vice-president at Google recently revealed that, as that company expands its employment, up to 80 percent of the 6,000 or so employees it would be seeking to hire in a year would likely have some substantive training in the humanities (Reisz 2011). The late Steve Jobs’s repeated emphasis on the need for liberal arts thinking in technology development and design likewise has reignited at least lip service to the importance of humanistic training. Humanities-trained employees, and technologists with humanities training, combine strong analytical skills, the capacity to read closely and to question, to probe, as well as substantive cultural knowledge (including the capacity to speak at least another language in addition to English). Supplementarily, a recent report has revealed that humanities majors with just a couple of additional technology or business courses like software programming or marketing under the belt dramatically increase their likelihood of employability as well as starting salary (Marklein 2013).

The recourse to this sort of affirmation and support seems the prevailing response to the call to identify instrumental value. The capacity to instill these skills perhaps provides the basis also for recent political concerns over how to assess the effectiveness of training in the humanities. Nussbaum insists that the humanities are central to producing educated citizens in a democratic state capable of recognizing the kinds of political claims being made, of thinking from another’s point of view (what she calls the “sympathetic imagination”), of responding critically, and of making well-informed, independent, and reasoned choices.

There no doubt is something significant to this. The humanities certainly are capable of producing—or helping to produce—these Nussbaumian skills and capacities, even if they do today somewhat indifferently, certainly not cohesively or with any sustained or coordinated sense of purpose, as Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011) have demonstrated. Nor have we done very well to convey these humanistic capacities to the public at large. Indeed, we tend to trudge them out when having to prove our worth to our (ac)creditors. Instead, we have relied largely on corporate executives with some college training in the humanities to make the case for us. Perhaps if we took the production of these skills more seriously as a pedagogical commitment across the humanities curriculum, this (call it) heightened instrumentalism, good as it may be, would quickly be taken by humanists to cut against the inherently critical commitments, against its autotelism. Notwithstanding, it may yet be one of the small remaining buffers against an even deeper sense of humanistic demise and one of the principal reasons administrators still give some lip service to the necessity of humanities for a full service university. The point is to make out these values publicly in a much more robust and sustained way while also building curriculum more coherently, at least in part, around these capacities. Call this “diversifying the humanities portfolio.”

The traditional conceptions of the humanities represented in these first three defenses nevertheless fail to consider the dramatically transformed social worlds that have emerged recently, and how humanistic practice might creatively respond. Geert Lovink rightly points out that Nussbaum’s emphasis on civic training and reflection completely ignores “the dirty networked techno spaces that we inhabit,” evading thinking complexly about “the technological in the humanities.” Writing, thinking, and voice variously involve techniques and their cultivation. Yet virtually no thought is given over in conventional humanities to how such techniques link to and are transformed by new technologies and social media (Lovink 2010). Nor has much attention been paid in political theory to the shift from the politics of representation and recognition to the recently emergent culture of participatory politics and technologically mediated engagement, and their implications for thinking about democracy (Valayden 2013). Indeed, conventional curricula in the humanities tend to be radically “anti-technological,” ignoring almost completely (perhaps but for a Heideggerian bemoaning) how the imagination is technologically shaped and reformed. The humanities require technological reflexivity and self-reflection as much as technology calls for critical humanistic engagement.

Fourth, and in some ways relatedly, humanists sometimes argue in more radical political terms that the humanities provide ways of rethinking the public sphere and shaping counter-publics. To critical humanists this seems to have become a dominant self-conception over the past two decades or so. Yet it may more accurately characterize the first of the pair (“rethinking the public sphere”) than the latter (“shaping counter-publics”). Humanists have been much better at critically assessing existing cultural expression and its institutional orderings than we have been at promoting viable counter-conceptions, strategies for their institutional elaboration, or especially effective institutional materialization. Fish’s challenge has some bite in this regard. But the challenge today, I think, runs deeper even than the skepticism of colleagues.

Consider the following commercial for Oakley sunglasses that appeared in an issue of Surfer Magazine (September 2010):


This may well prove a rallying cry of our times, if current political rhetoric and cultural expression is anything to go by. Of course, one could respond critically that sunglasses darken the possibility of seeing things clearly or crisply. Oakley’s sunglass style is best known for its wrap-around look, after all. Dark glasses may be today’s equivalent of Plato’s cave. Nor is it too radical to suggest that reason might help in “going for it” but perhaps “x-treme” everything encourages precisely otherwise, or at least blurs vision. No need to think in critical situations, at least not critically, beyond the temporality of the immediate and instinctive. So where instrumental reason may help in working one’s way through the critical situations in which one finds oneself, not least in adrenaline-rush, extreme activities, critical reason recognizes the limits of possibility and capacity before finding oneself lurching over the ledge (consider here the Tea Party-induced US government shutdown and debt ceiling crisis in October 2013). In the past five years, investment bankers and politicians might have done well to heed the call to self-critical judgment and left global economic conditions in a far better condition than they are today.

Fast forward the three decades of dramatic cultural shifts the likes of these movements helped spawn and we find a zeitgeist in which posthumanism is knotted together with an enlarged sense of the posthuman (Braidotti 2013). The popularity of the “Seed of Chucky” movie series alongside avatar culture and the artificing of human constitution signal an unsettled sense of what we now consider human being. Here, academic humanities as conventionally conceived (and perhaps practiced) at best have grown marginal to comprehending popular social and cultural trends more generally (for a provocative reading, see Halberstam 2008). The humanities’ (now unitary, singular) autotelic value is deemed irrelevant; its narrowly economistic value is close to non-existent; its production of civic and critical skills is considered a nuisance, the proverbial fly on the nose; and its prevailing notion of a redirected public sphere is deemed threatening, where registering among broader (even educated) publics at all.

Critical thinking and theory are implicated in these knots as well. Much that goes under the rubric of the “critical,” in theory, as in thinking more generally, assumes the frame of the conventional and given, the taken for granted social arrangements we inhabit. In that sense they change little if anything of the structural arrangements, material, political or institutional social worlds we inhabit and they take themselves to be addressing. They engage, overwhelmingly, in thinking within the faded frame. Critical theory committed to transforming how we think and live, how we inhabit our life worlds, of necessity must take on the social and thought frames themselves, the structural conditions constituting the conditions of possibility, the constituting outsides which order established and inherited ways of being, thinking, and doing.

What, in the wake of this new world of reason’s irrelevance, driven by fear and insecurity in the name of “no fear,” immediation, and instantaneous gratification, incivility and uncompromising intransigence could the work of and need for reinvented humanities (now emphatically pluralizing and heterogenous) amount to?

[ IV ]

I understand the power of the humanities, traditionally and today, to be an engagement in translating the human to ourselves: what it is to be, what it means and has meant to be, and what it ought to be human? If, as Walter Benjamin remarked, the value of translation is to be found in its extending the life of the work translated, in liberating its “afterlife,” this sense of the humanities as a project of translating the human historically, contemporarily, and futuristically frees the humanities potentially from disciplinary and institutional constraints. It engages also questions of how the human today has been, is, and is to be identified, not just individually but collectively in the face of interactively changing biological, material (including physical and technological), and social conditions. Nadia Abu El-Haj puts this succinctly in regards to the collective: What is it, she asks, “ . . . that makes a human collectivity meaningful and enduring . . .? [W]hat kinds of human collectivities can be recognized at all and, as such, can emerge as ‘populations’ with ‘histories’ that can be read and told?” (Abu El-Haj 2011). One could formulate this to include individual existence too, connected to, sustained by, assuming significance in relation to collectives.

This interactive, interwoven co-constitution of individual with population or collective life, with material conditions, and socio-cultural presumption and expression at any moment in time constitutes the “object” of the humanities, its human “text.” The humanities here are conceived to render comprehensible the lives of different historically constituted collectives and their overlapping, intersecting, and interacting members in all their socio-cultural complexities, contradictions, contributions and constraints. Where The New Republic has started a vigil series on the challenges facing the humanities across the academy under the title “Humanities Deathwatch” (The New Republic 2013), what I am making a case for is the promise of humanities’ extended life, their “afterlife.”

Conceived thus, the humanities are not reducible simply or overridingly to literature and literary studies, as parochial literary theorists these days are too often want to insist (for a characteristic expression, see Harpham 2011b, p. 8, though later, p. 16, Harpham offers a less constrained extension). The humanities in the counter-conception I am suggesting (here emphatically plural, multiplicitous, heterogenous) are not simply limited to the tradition of languages and literatures, philosophy and history, though they importantly include all of this. Nor are they simply textual, in the more or less traditional sense of the term. Randy Martin (2011, p. 168) characterizes the objects of the humanities as “texts, practices, and commodities.” I want to mark the domain of the humanities more abstractly and capaciously as any analytic and critical engagement with questions of meaning, value, and significance, whatever their modes, media and histories of expression or sites of reference, materialization, or objectification. In short, something like this is what Jim Clifford has characterized, tongue only partly in cheek and all ambiguity intended, as “The Greater Humanities.” The domain of humanities is what the late nineteenth century German tradition marked as “the human sciences.”

Given the times we inhabit, I suggest drawing together the question of the individual and collective with the contribution of the humanities in comprehending these connections by asking what it means, for us—and I mean increasingly a global “we” that includes us, here, now—to live (and to have lived) in critical conditions. These conditions range at the very least across the economic and the environmental, political geography and the bio-medical, legal and cultural. Their impacts no doubt vary across sites, class locations, nation-states, regions, and so on. Living in a critical condition will be experienced differently uptown and downtown, in New Orleans and Mogadishu, Jakarta, Johannesburg, and Joplin, Missouri, on the Southern Californian coast or in a fishing village in Aceh, by the 20 percenters (or now the 99 percenters) at the bottom of the income scale and the one percenters at the top, in the global north and the global south. Dispositions to these conditions, their description and negotiation, their being faced and worked around, critical questions of, theories about, responses to, and mobilizations of resources as a consequence will vary by site. Indeed, given the rapidly growing dependence of the academy, and not least in the humanities, on cheap adjunct labor—the “Walmarketing of adjunct workers”—this condition of “prole-precaritization” is especially close to home (Wade 2013). And yet for all of that, there increasingly appears to be a generalizability about the condition—ontologically and epistemologically—that has the possibility of drawing into engagement a range of people across these global differences and distinctions. From Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria to Spain and Greece, California and Connecticut, North Carolina and North Texas, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

This generalizability and specificity about increasingly precarious conditions of existence for larger and larger numbers and kinds of people across the world suggests a double dislocation. One concerns the obvious ways in which precarious life conditions undo the anchors of predictable social life, cast people adrift as they individualize their condition in the struggles to survive and the threat of socio-natural disaster. The other, however, has to do with the ways critical attention to increasingly marginal conditions dislocates theoretical commitments from the self-referentiality of the given and established, from the constraints of conventional thinking. Attending to the conditions and conditions of possibility of precariousness and immiseration at different historical moments surfaces the increasingly entangled and associated conditions of threat, concerns about disease, dis-ease, and immunities, about the variable impacts of the entangled economic, political, environmental, and social ecologies, and about the historical conditions of their (re)production, variation, representation, and sustainability. It also conjures the relation, causal, correlative, and distancing, to wealth and privilege and their modes of representation. It casts us adrift from our comfort zones of attention, the moorings and bearings of predictable concerns and considerations. Here, insight from the archive of the humanities can be deeply illuminating. Shelley’s biting poem, “England in 1819,” is as cuttingly insightful, and perhaps as prescient, about the world cut from under mortgage defaulters and Wall Street “occupiers” today as it was about conditions in the industrializing England of his time. Similarly, classical conceptions of work and social standing are deeply revealing about changing conceptions of such matters today (see Lis 2009).

Humanists have long named “ages”: the age of innocence, reason, of empire, or mechanical reproduction. Today, there is a tendency to name the age as one of networking, or big data or information. But it might just as well be one of pervasive uncertainty. It was exactly in the face of pervasive economic uncertainty and its conditions of production that derivatives were conjured as a reflexive and reiterative insurance, an instrumentalizing reaction against an existential condition. What seemed genuinely novel about derivatives, both new and magical (perhaps even the new form of magical realism) was that derivatives came to offer a hedge not just against the failure of predicted outcome, but against the failure of the hedge itself. The insurance was derived to insure against the failure of the gamble, but also the failure of the gamble’s failure, its success. Uncertainty could now be insured against no matter the outcome, effectively rendering uncertainty moot, or at least removing its sting. Extreme activity—in finance as in sport, in home building location or bodily enhancement—becomes “normal” practice precisely by undercutting the effects of its extremity, hedges literally softening whatever blow(back) might follow. An antidote had been manufactured apparently to the sting of uncertainty. But, ironically, what the hedge against uncertainty unleashed as a consequence was the exacerbation of uncertainty by pressing always beyond the frontiers, the limits, of present capacity and comprehension, and so of older modes of increasingly unreliable regulation.

This multiplying criticality is the condition we now inhabit as a matter of course. Humanistic critique is challenged to make sense of these interlocking, these net-working phenomena. It is challenged to comprehend social constitution, its make-up and projections, its conditions of possibility and effects, its histories and predictable outcomes, its more or less inevitable slippages and its possible alternatives, its cultures of representation and misrepresentation. It is challenged, in short, to make sense of the meanings, values, and significance conjured by and in the face of such worldly uncertainty. This is not simply a presentist attentiveness. Different epochs have had their own uncertainties, destructive and productive precariousness. There is a great deal to learn from those that have been: what forms they took; how they expressed and undercut the social formations of which they could be said to constitute their limit; how populations faced up to and managed the vulnerabilities they entailed, or failed and the consequences thus suffered; what they learned from their own challenges, how they expressed these vulnerabilities and failures in their cultural production, and how we might learn from them for our own as well as reading back from those now facing us to see things otherwise hidden in and from past view. And indeed what we might expect by ignoring the lessons learned, as much from their failures as successes.

It is all this that the humanities especially—what I want to characterize as the post-humanities, the afterlife of the humanities that once were and no longer are sustainable—could and should have a special standing, an opportunity and obligation, to address and to which to contribute. To identify the lived conditions of our time, to make them clear. To genealogize and historicize their coming to be and their cultural articulations. To understand how the structural patterns and variations have come to be, how they constitute part of, as they are constituted by, a broader social map. To suggest different ways of getting at our lived and death-producing conditions, to ask new questions about them. To reveal dynamic and productive ways of understanding and responding to these conditions. In short, to imagine different ways of being in the world (Miller 2011). The Owl of Minerva gives way to neither the Prophet nor the Angel of History but to the worldly translator, to translating the world—worlds actually—to ourselves as we co-habit and co-make them guided, but not limited by, historical example.

By post-humanities I mean then not the end of the humanities, their death or demise, and so their post-mortem. Rather, I intend by this the posing of alternative modalities for taking up, for doing, for engaging (and for an engaging) humanities. Post-humanities speak to the ways in which the material and conceptual conditions establishing the conventions by which humanities once were structured and recognized no longer obtain. These conventional assumptions, ways of doing the humanities, and of being a (professional) humanist are at best now an elusive nostalgia. The “post-humanities” are a siren call, accordingly, for another way of engaging humanities, that speak to the living and deathly conditions of our moment.

I am calling, by contrast, for a mobile, an agile humanities. The challenge to the humanities today is to be sufficiently agile to be able to translate for ourselves and others, to make legible the conditions we inhabit, the range of meaning-making conditions we face historically and contemporarily—conceptual, argumentational, vocal, textual, visual, sonic, and now digital—as well as the affective responses to them by individuals and collectives. This sense of a mobile (and mobilizing) humanities will attend also to the transformed capacities, meanings, and significance as a consequence of how new social media have shifted social relations and possibilities, engagement and alienation, (trans)generational commitments and refusals. In its afterlife, humanities will remain concerned to bare old worlds and (the possibilities of) new ones, with the view to comprehending and drawing on them as resources for social comprehension, accountability, and enrichment. One compelling example among a range of such a mobile and mobilizing humanities can be found in Eyal Weizman’s current work on “forensic architecture” (Weizman 21013); another in Edgar Pieterse’s and AbdouMaliq Simone’s “rogue urbanism” (Pieterse and Simone 2013).

Meanings and their makings are never discrete. They are to be comprehended as clusters of ideas, networks of significance that make sense only relationally, and so cannot meaningfully be reduced to their simply discrete formations. That was the mistake, the hubris, of philosophical analyticity, as compelling as its commitment to conceptual and analytic rigor may have been.

At heart, then, I am urging that this conception of a post-humanities encourage and embrace a reformulating of public reason, of what it amounts to and how vigorously to promote it.  


[ V ]

Against the backdrop of shifting conditions and conceptions I have woven above, a reformulated public reason would be committed to a capacity to (re)construct, recognize, comprehend, analyze, in short, critically and relationally engage concepts, arguments, representations, and their underlying or implicit assumptions circulating in the broadly public domain. This sounds traditional enough. But today these are not just verbal or textual and certainly not simply literary but multi-mediated rhetorical form(ul)ations and compositions. A public reason would be committed to a project of broad public multi-media literacies, to their modes of effective composition, their co-making and interactive co-constitution. It would commit to figuring out the varied and effective uses of such composition, the implications, effects, and impacts in meaning-making, in significance, value, and (e)valuation.

Where truth is no longer (if it ever was) a given, where pretty much every knowledge claim of consequence is contested, public reason has a unique responsibility to sort out compelling claims, what compels for whom and why, what the implications from compulsion (likely) amount to. Such a public reason thus would seek the capacity to recognize ideas not simply discretely but as networks, to use Steve Johnson’s turn of phrase (S. Johnson 2010). Networks of ideas are constituted through their multi-relational quality, as well as their genealogies. Their power and possibility are predicated upon their “liquidness” and plasticity (Bauman 2005) if not their “liquidities,” their value a function of their relative agility and connectedness. A public reason, then, would take these networks of ideas seriously, as networks, as relations of ideas, metaphors, and meanings, to comprehend how they came about, into being, into relation, what they speak to and for, what they assume and presume, and what they entail. Public reason, in this conception, would attend to the make-up of these relational ideas, to their composition, to their significance, to their reliability and deceptions, to their relative and multiplicitous effects and effectiveness. Such a public reason would need to be generous in reconstruction, to take seriously in comprehension, and to remain (respectfully) critical even when vigorous in engagement but also—perhaps especially—in critical disagreement and rejection.

A public reason, accordingly, would attend to the specific conditions of the social moment, to the material and representational dislocations and restrictions, exclusions and expulsions characterizing the social. As a constituting condition of being human today, it would attend to the arrangements and rationalizations of available and unavailable resources sustaining and legitimating the benefits of power and privilege and challenging sustainable lives under conditions of powerlessness, dispossession (Butler 2013), and disprivilege. It would be committed to identifying rhetorical conditions disposing and exposing subjects to the prevailing modes of expiration and their causes: who and why and under what specific conditions subjects face physical and cultural exhaustion, political and economic expiration, social death and ways of dying (Mda 1995). What in the past and the present are the multi-mediating rhetorical articulations, expressions, and formulations, as well as the fallacies in public practical reasoning advanced to support interests antithetical to the general wellbeing, to public good, and why they at this or that time and place have traction across general publics? What are the technologies that enable privilege to be extended and expanded at the existential expense of those increasingly without resources, and what if anything legitimates and justifies those extensions and expansions? How can resources and conditions crucial to living decent and dignified lives together be more reasonably sustained, more equitably shared, more robustly publicly supported?

Public reason accordingly is concerned with how to conceive (at different historical moments, in different places) of the ordinary and the everyday, of the commons, of public goods, of expansively collective good. What is the commons, and how might its conception have changed in the wake of new social media and networks? What passions and interests are individually and socially generative, and how can sometimes generative passions and interests become dangerous or destructive? What is the distinction, whether and where to draw the lines, connections, and interactions between the commons, public goods, on one side, and individualized right and wellbeing, on the other? What is or ought to be shared, connected, and relational history and heritage, how to determine what counts as common social values, and how to know them? What do or have individuals and collectives marvel(ed) at, and why, what assumes the mark of socio-cultural enchantment, and under what conditions might it (have) become disenchanting? Why has the culture of administrative managerialism grown so dramatically of late? How does it differ from earlier bureaucratic forms, and how are the logics of institutional administration today historically related but also now in contrast to the administrative state form? And how would a critical public reason break with the logics of privatizing institutional administrative managerialism and its logics of disenchantment, stultification, and control?

Public reason would seek the capacity to compose and critically to assess counter-conceptions of current ways of being at any moment, of social arrangements, their conditions of possibility and impossibility (consider here, for instance, Kim Stanley Robinson’s profound counterfactual history, The Years of Race and Salt). It would seek to comprehend their critical conditions in both senses of the term, to imagine counter-possibilities, possible alternative worlds, possible and possibly more sustainable futures that run counter to dominant projections and social commitments. It looks to comprehend how things fit together, how structural conditions and cultural conceptions are mutually generative, reinforcing, and sustaining, or delimiting, contradictory, and constraining. It would strive to say difficult things overlooked or purposely ignored by conventional thinking, to speak critically about challenging matters, to identify critical and counter-interests.

While clarity and reasonableness may be goals sought, even public goods, the humanities have always recognized the metaphorical nature of all language, its multi-significance. Language, it could be said, more often than not speaks with forked tongue, the more so in its public and political undertakings. It follows that the work of the humanities includes attending to the slippages of public language, to its mis-takes, to the gaps in meaning, to the silences and the not-said, intended and otherwise. So the humanities are bound to attend as much to the non-sense as to sense, to the sense in and of non-sense and the nonsense in and hidden by sense and the sensible, to the unsaid as much as the said, and to the dia-lectics, the complex of relations, betwixt and between them.

All this entails, too, the need to attend, to get clear about, what one stands for and not just against, the gaps in understanding and articulating both. So public reason is committed to laying bare the reasons or their lack for any state of affairs; it does not pre-determine, predispose, or foretell conclusions, judgments, or outcomes in the Rawlsian or Habermasian formulations of deliberation and public reasoning. As such, the “public” in public reason is no longer—if it ever was—about the consensual or contractual. Rather, it concerns collaboration without consensus, and with no guarantee of any outcome. That, too, is humanities—a university, even—without condition.

It should not be thought as a consequence that “the public” is the object or outcome of this conception of public reason, the elaborated conclusion of consensual thinking. “The public” is always a bricolage, a mashup, a piecing together, revisable and replaceable in part or in whole. Publics are networks, works ever in digression as much as in progress, makings and remakings as they are nets of coherence and cohesion (which themselves, in any case, always require work to reproduce). They are also as much the product of overlapping ideas and (partially) shared assumptions, disagreements even, dispositions, and conceptions as they are about the socio-material arrangements bringing people into engagement. Publics, then, are as much unfoldings as folds in the social fabric.

Is it possible in the wake of all of this to promote in the name of public reason a condition of reasonableness as the baseline criterion of assessment and judgment? What would a public reasonableness amount to? And how to forge its possibility and actualization through partnerships, collaborations, participation, coalitions? What would it be, what would it take in a sustainably heterogenous sociality, to live heterogenously, in a publicly reasoned and reasonable sort of way, not as a one-sided imposition or idealized normativity, but as crafted together? Crafting together, thinking and acting collectively, however, is not tantamount to collective thinking. It proceeds not by stamping out difference but by having all reasonable counter views in plain view, in constantly contested discussion with each other. What, in the final analysis, would such a commonly and contestedly crafted public reasonableness and its applications amount to?

A public reason accordingly would amount to drawing together the resources of critical consideration—of historical, social, conceptual, linguistic, visual and sonic rhetorical analysis—to understand the place and times, the ways of being, and of being inhabited. It undertakes to make insightful critical judgments and enact compelling responses to address the challenges faced in those locations. How have these critical conditions come to be? What are their limits and do they offer possibilities not otherwise more reasonably available? What are the relations they encourage or make impossible within and beyond a specific social setting? What can historical examples reveal to us about our own dogmas and denials? What broad agreement can reasonably be reached about what is completely socially unacceptable, that would tear sociality asunder? What about perversities, their symptoms and effects? What are the prevailing subject matters, their subjections and alternatives? What social order do they entail or encourage, what modes of governance of self and others? What repetitions of the past? And how to choose between them over time without tilting the outcome in favor of one side or the other?

So a public reason concerns distinction, as Bourdieu might have referenced it. It concerns the capability to discern and distinguish scales of value, their source(s) and grounds. Distinction here entails being able to recognize contrasting ways of being and wellbeing, contrasting yet reasonable scales of value, critical assessment and self-assessment of possible and actual commitments. Public reason embodies, at basis, the capacity to make wise judgments, together. And to do so in conversation, crowdsourced. It undertakes to assess the viability of arguments, to come to compelling and sustainable practical conclusions on behalf of the commons broadly conceived, not this or that individual or narrowly individuated interest. It would promote an independence of thinking that is not narrowly tailored to self-interest but disposed to ask how policy, regulation (or deregulation), law, or actions impacting the public promote the common over personal or private good. Public reason promotes not just individual dissent and challenges to authority but productive critical engagement and response in support of the commons, in protection of the least well positioned to support their own wellbeing, to make the case for the capacities and resources to enable them to enable themselves. A public reason, in the Aristotelian sense, then, is a comprehensively practical reasoning.

In The Government of Self and Others Foucault characterizes a conception of classical philosophy as one that is ergon and not just logos. It is one seeking to have consequence, that is consequential, of consequence. I am concerned with a humanities that once again is consequential, that, as Foucault says, is one “able to tell the truth about truth,” that can “speak truth in relation to power” (Foucault 1982/2010, 229-30). Not simply, note, truth to power, but truth in relation to power, to uncover the truth of power, to discern the underpinnings of what has gone wrong, of what ails us, to uncover what is at stake, to establish the stakes. To speak, as Derrida once put it, without condition (Derrida 2002). The humanist on this conception is a trouble-shooter (and sometimes, consequently, a trouble-maker), identifying social ailments and how effectively to respond, to see differently, to think otherwise, to facilitate sometimes—when, under what conditions?—the alteration of lifestyle.

Stanley Fish warns humanists to “save the world on [their] own time,” not on the public’s dime. What I am proposing is not saving the world but helping to craft a common and complex conversation on the basis of a broadly public reason the humanities have long been committed to promoting. And to do so, once again, as a public, a collective good. Knowledge pursued for its own sake no doubt is a laudable individual motivation; it is likely, however, to be a losing meme for promoting public support for higher education. While it is better on the whole for any individual to know more than less, there is no guarantee of course that this or that slice of knowledge might be put to ill purpose. The humanities are not to be pursued because they bring their practitioners narcissistic pleasure—Fish’s pursuit of the humanities for no other reason than that it brings him personal enjoyment—but because of the public value they (potentially) offer for raising and addressing matters of concern. It is precisely the things that bring one solely individual pleasure that one pursues on one’s own time and dime.

This is a common public conversation that begins by eschewing imposed and established frameworks, by cutting away from the anchors of the conventional. It proceeds by examining the interstices of life worlds and thinking. It reveals the shifting parameters of all socio-semantic frameworks, but also the fabricating nature of the public, of publics, its/their processes of constant making, self-making, and remaking, of make-up and mashup. Rhetorically, “the public” is constantly in search of a language of articulation. Lighting on such a language inevitably involves conflicts, dissensus, refusals, erasures. It is inherently political, revealing at once what “the public” has been and now is, what it could be, where it is or could be headed.

The humanities would have to indicate that they are open and up to the engagement, have to speak in ways that reveal wisdom about the current state of being, drawing in illuminating ways on the immense archive of understanding regarding historical and counter states. The aim would be to effect a critical productivity and not simply a solipsistic pursuit or a tearing apart. The role of the humanities accordingly is to help produce the conditions for a citizenry capable of thinking critically for and about itself as public, as collective, as collective good fueled as I say by the vast reservoir of revealing historical reference and comprehension. Nussbaum and others are right about this. But if fully effective, this will be a teaching that makes the one-sidedness and uni-directionality of teaching irrelevant. Humanities succeed as an institutional site, in the final analysis, only by making narrowly institutionalized humanities obsolete, by perhaps putting us out of business as an isolated, discrete institutional site and into the academy as engaged interlocutor pretty much across the curriculum.

The humanities and interpretive social sciences—the human sciences, the greater humanities—on this reading provide another view otherwise unavailable. Not just one of negative critique, as important as that is. But a view—really views—that are composites of what there is, how they came about, what they entail, what the possibilities and alternatives are. They provide, in short, composites, compositions, comprehensions of how things fit together, or fail. They offer cartographies of the various pieces of nature-culture, of social things and natural processes in their co-constitution. And so the humanities reveal what’s possible and what’s not in the order of the thought and the lived, the abundance otherwise available only discretely, in bits and pieces, from the more instrumentalist of the disciplines and interdisciplines. The humanities, then, help to think at the edge, to prompt modes of thinking and doing, of being itself. Socrates repeatedly characterized his role as a philosophical midwife, of eliciting and giving birth to the knowledge implicitly extant. That, with a twist, could be said to be the role of the humanities at large. The twist is that the truth is not simply lying there to be elicited. Rather, knowledge is to be made anew together out of the materials socially available.

Perhaps this demands too a different sort of methodological disposition, more along the lines of an anti-method in the Feyerabendian sense. The call for what some of us have been characterizing as poor theory (Abbas 2009).

Poor theory is not a theory about the poors, as important as such a theory would be today. Rather, it is a theory about theory itself. Poor theory, then, is really an “un-theory,” a way of proceeding theoretically, an open source theory in constant reformulation from multiple re-visions and remixings. It proceeds through appropriations and improvisations, making the most compositely, compositionally, of limited resources, pulling on whatever resources are at hand, including the historical, to facilitate critical comprehension. In describing—really de-scribing—poor theory transforms the very object of description, rewriting it so as to work around its seeming fixation(s), its stagnating restrictions, its delimitations. Design, a major focus of our current moment, is more than just dasein, as Latour has put it (Latour 2008). It is a way of looking at the world but also a way of being in the world, and vice versa. Design necessarily entails de-signing, displacing signs from their conventional and predictable contexts, looking at the signs and meanings of things non-conventionally, anew. It puts to productive compositional purposes imbalances and unevenness in local and global culture, recrafting meaning, value, and significance to strategic purpose. Poor theory’s commitment to open source input and incessant reformulation entails that it values heterogeneity over homogenization, intensely interactive pluriculture over monoculture, crowdsourcing over hermeticism, with constant recalibration in the face of error, failure, and loss.

Poor theory, in short, makes for humanities without limit. For a constantly renewing and renewable humanities. For a humanities disposed to openness to the world, to worlds about it, rather than self-enclosed, introspective, walled off, talking as Denis Donoghue has characterized it only to “our friends,” to ourselves (Donoghue 1998).


[ VI ]

Now defensive humanists traditionally ask, “What would the university look like without the humanities?” The response is usually along Nussbaumian lines, that higher education would be reduced to technocratic training, that universities would cease to be, well, universities. This traditional drawing of the battle lines no longer resonates. It reinforces the sense of the humanities permanently in crisis (Davidson 2011), on long-term deathwatch, and so permanently at a loss, in both the comprehending and commercial senses. It no longer draws the lines between defenders of the humanities and their critics, but between those who care about a very backward looking and conventional sense of the humanities—the “timeless disciplines,” as an advertisement from Inside Higher Ed for an audio conference on how distance technology can increase demand for the humanities has put it (sign up for $199)—and those who care less. (For a trenchant critique of distance learning’s pitfalls, see Wendy Brown 2011). The response from those caring less is no longer bitter criticism so much as out and out ignoring. Or what they find interesting—in literature or cinematic and cultural expression or historical narrative more broadly, for instance—recognized nominalistically in itself but not as humanities, as some alien incomprehensible pursuit.

The more challenging question, I suggest, is “What would the world look like with a dramatically reconceived humanities?” There is an opportunity to remake and remix, to recompose from the decomposing and the compost it leaves in its wake. And to do so in ways that begin to speak to and with the concerns, interests, creative engagements and productions of the time and social worlds we inhabit, the traditions and critical conditions constituting our habitus, with the impacts and influences of times past and with the more or less extended circles of relation.

 A remaking, remixing, recomposing humanities is fueled by Jim Clifford’s scopic enlargement, the opening up to a “greater humanities.” This includes critical engagement with all meaning-making, making sense of all signification, valuation, and significance in thick critical dialogue with those making and consuming, composing and remixing, suffering and enjoying, deconstructing and (re)constructing. It presupposes literacy in that it requires knowing the prevailing assumptions, academic languages, bodies of knowledge and how methodologically they were come by. But it requires equally an openness to the “unsettling heterogeneities” that variously make up our worlds and that throw our settled ways of knowing and being into probing question (Said 2003).

This raises too what and how humanities are taught and their connections to other fields. What work do the humanities do, and what do or can they add to ways of working more broadly? If the humanities are to remain germane to working lives in the twenty-first century, in a world of increasingly robust and competitive global labor markets, what cultivation of capacities and considerations are compelling for our students and their potential employers who are now emphasizing the need for critical and collaborative thinking, clear writing and productive argumentation, global cultural literacy and multilingual facility? What does it mean to live not merely in a global world but actually to live globally? In particular, how might the shifts taking place in the concept and practice of work impact what and how we teach in the humanities, what professions we train our students for, at both the undergraduate and graduate, less and more advanced levels? How have new digital technologies transformed how humanists approach our own work, what we focus on, not just what we do but now also make and remake, how as humanists we conduct our research, what outlets we seek, and how the work is being and to be assessed (see Profession 2011)? Stanford University, for instance, is now offering to cover the costs for those humanities graduate students willing to train with the Stanford Teacher Education Program to teach in K-12 classrooms (Flaherty 2013). And there is vigorous discussion under the banner of alternative academic careers (“alt-ac”) of work for humanistically trained graduates other than the professoriate or the adjunct precariat. This would constitute another reason for the conventional humanities programs of study to incorporate—to “mainstream”—training in digital capacities rather than to retain the artifice of digital humanities as a discipline unto itself.

Relatedly, this speaks to the concern, hinted at earlier, about the shaping and structures of our institutional arrangements in which we largely play out our professional lives. There is intensifying pressure on those departments and programs failing to generate sufficient student credit hours (or to bring in other revenue sources) on some institutionally consigned metric. Within the humanities, the leading candidates for cuts, of late, have been longstanding—especially European—foreign languages, most notably French and Italian, though in some places German, Russian, Slavic and other historically more marginal academic languages have been targeted too. SUNY Albany has been the recent poster child, but others are struggling with this also, from public universities such as UC Irvine to well endowed private ones like Rice and Emory University. There remains only one French PhD program left in the state of Texas, for instance. A touch less noticed has been the threat to some philosophy departments (for instance, Howard University). Targeted are those subject matters not explicitly called irrelevant to the current moment but whose diminishing enrollments suggest they are so, at least as determined by a monetary or demand metric. Simply cutting in the face of such pressures may be the “easiest” way to go administratively, but it is also the least convincing and creative.

We can ask, rather, whether these instances offer an opportunity to restructure in ways that speak to our times, that could create new formations, generate new knowledge bases addressing pressing needs, that revitalize knowledge production and appeal to students, faculty, and student engagement (there may be causal connections here). Posed as a question about enrollments, the curriculum encourages creating “products” that “sell” to students, pandering to whatever their market-driven, consumptive, and so changing interests may suggest. Let’s teach a course on X—hip hop, Lady Gaga, terror (not to say that they might not be worthwhile in themselves)—because it will attract students. But then too the question about what to teach should not be driven simply or solely by what is my specialization, or what at the moment I am finding of interest (or have always found of interest). The question, I think, remains: what do we together think students should know, now, about the world we inhabit, how it came to be, how it is represented in culture, how cultural representations reveal something not otherwise available about selves and others, our world and worlds apart, about how others in the past and present have thought about such questions. What is it we think collectively and collaboratively students now should know about how our world might differ from worlds past, how it orders our lives and could make for different worlds, different lives, differing ways of being and working in? What modes of knowing, being, and expression best enable worldly flourishing (cf. Outlaw 1998)? What would it mean for a set of knowledge formations long driven by a mono-typical model of individualized research and teaching to transform its practices of engagement to those of vigorously collaborative lab or studio driven ones? What capacities and skills would be developed in such collaborative, connected, and participatory engagements, from the technical and technological to the less formal and social?

In the case of the European language and literature as well as philosophy programs now under threat, can we think about restructuring them not simply administratively or narrowly in relation to each other but more broadly in relation to the world which they currently—and in different ways perhaps have always—been related? Some are already thinking creatively along these lines. For instance, administrators and faculty in the humanities at the University of Washington, in the face of draconian cuts, have fashioned thematically driven focus clusters that cut across traditional disciplines but which undergraduate students find appealing and many faculty are excited to teach together. European Studies would arguably benefit from a reordered focus drawing faculty, students, and publics into critical intellectual and pedagogical engagement including the European languages under threat but also classics, philosophy, and those doing well in enrollments such as history, film and media or visual studies. Would such a reformulation—a reformation—lead us to think differently about Europe today as well yesterday or long ago, to think relationally about the subject matter at hand, to think what it meant and means to be European in relation to its constitutive outsides, to its diasporas and its varieties of interiorized otherness? To do this requires an openness as much on the part of all the affected faculty, of the administration in question, of the student body, and of publics more generally. And as with all such dispositions, generally such an openness is not a given but needs to be cultivated, nurtured, sustained across the faculty and student body together.

The humanities historically have taught the capacity to think logically and critically, to recognize arguments and fallacies, to make coherent and rhetorically compelling arguments (Goldin and Katz 2008). They have taught language literacy and cultural knowledge, historical understanding and moral/ethical reasoning. The humanities have always been important in crafting how to read, write, and reason, our three “Rs”. They have been the sites in the university of “arcane and impractical knowledge,” as my colleague Bill Maurer has put it in verbal comments.

Today, the humanities are challenged not so much to expand the repertoire beyond these three “Rs” as to how we do them and what we do in their name. They are challenged to stretch their rhetorical capacity to include new media, to address what it means to communicate and debate effectively not only in writing and speaking but especially now in image making in more diverse environments in global culture, to become as well digitally literate, and not only in the narrowly technological sense. What, then, does effective practical reasoning amount to in the face of complex global arrangements and their social media of enactment, how to address cultural and ethical dilemmas in such environments, how to approach and make judgments wisely, whether about knowledge reliability, practical or political effectivity, or individual and collective responsibility (Janz 2010). To comprehend how things are made up, how convincingly to compose and curate, to make and remake. To consider not just what our values are, but the complex modes involved in valuing and evaluating themselves. And to do so while taking cognizance of the material, representational, and axiological complexities of the worlds we now inhabit, consume, negotiate, and need to comprehend. And to ask ourselves anew—in the face of these multi-mediating, multi-species, multi-social complexities—the perennial humanistic questions: What social lives do we stand for and are committed to living? What makes for good lives, for living well together, what makes lives relationally and interactively worth living and sustaining (Brown 2011a)?

Humanists have traditionally responded to these questions through discursive engagement with each other prior to looking to produce, and be recognized and rewarded for producing, an output for the most part on their own, individually. We might characterize this as collaborative, interdisciplinary input, and individualized output. But the interactive complexity of these questions and their objects of analysis calls for interdisciplinary collaborative outputs as much as inputs, for humanistic analogues of the laboratory and studio as the organizing arrangements for research and learning formations adequate to the objects of analysis at hand.

Remaking and remixing, as the terms suggest, do not close off the valuable contributions of past scholarship and composition but place them in new relations to each other and connections to contemporary issues and commentary. Institutional re-creation—remaking, remixing, and recomposing our own institutional lives—calls for less fixation on defending the given and established, shifting from a narrow institutionalized disciplinarity to more thematically driven and problem focused modes of collaborative inquiry. This doesn’t close off the rigors of individualized specializations or training; nor does it disavow the historical, quite the contrary. It only encourages us to think how these specializations reveal something about distinction, about value, about judgment, about the things and thoughts facing us together, today.

Rapid technological transformations in the past twenty plus years have had dramatic impacts on social forms and relations, on economic productivity and legal arrangements, on cultural expression and consumption, on knowledge production and learning, on human being and the very nature of what it means to be human itself, in short, on nature-culture. For example, new nano-technological developments at the University of California San Diego have created an artificial sensory “skin” which can be tattooed pretty much onto anything—inanimate objects, animals, human skin. The tattoo embeds a sensor programmed to register designated environmental conditions such as temperature, air quality, or allergenics, etc. This potentially turns anything, in effect, into a sensory being, challenging conventions about where the lines between animate and inanimate being lies, if not also the distinguishing criteria dividing the human from the non-human. The humanities have long attended to questions and issues at the bases of this range of conceptual domains.

These profound shifts in social being call for—indeed, demand—robust humanistic inquiry to make sense of the worlds, of world making, and ways of being in our time. This new ecological landscape of information proliferation and big data, of technological speed and networking connectivity, of participatory socialities and cultures of shared consumption, of technological sensing and bodily prostheses demand revisioned modes of translating ourselves to ourselves. They demand modes of creative and insightful thinking equal to the challenges of being human today, in all their—our—complexities. And, in contrast with a sense of a humanities in “ruins” or in “chains,” they encourage a humanities sufficiently courageous to give up on the formalisms, solipsisms, and idiolectical expression that have become so characteristic of talking to ourselves in the humanities of late.

This is a humanities—a “greater” humanities—worth striving for. 

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David Theo Goldberg, Ph.D., is the Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, and the Executive Director of the Digital Media & Learning Research Hub. He holds faculty appointments as Professor of Comparative Literature, Anthropology, and Criminology, Law and Society at UC Irvine.



Goldberg, David Theo. April 2014. “The Afterlife of the Humanities.” Irvine, CA: University of California Humanities Research Institute.

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