Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose …
For connoisseurs of Schadenfreude, one of the most entertaining diversions of the past half-century or so is the turf war fought out in the universities between the sciences and the humanities now that, as novelist R. Scott Bakker has written, “at long last the biological sciences have gained the tools and techniques required to crack problems that had hitherto been the exclusive province of the humanities.” A lot of what’s happened in the humanities since the 1960s—the “canon wars,” the popularization of Continental philosophy, the establishment of various sorts of “studies”—could be described as a disciplinary battle with the sciences, and not the “political” war that it is often advertised as; under that description, the vaunted outreach of the humanities to previously-underserved populations stops looking entirely so noble and more like the efforts, a century ago, of robber baron industrialists to employ minority scabs against striking workers. It’s a comparison in fact that is not only not meant flippantly, but suggests that the history of the academy since the 1960s stops looking like the glorious march towards inclusion its proponents sometimes portray it as—and rather more like the initial moves of an ideological war designed to lay the foundation for the impoverishment of all America.
According to University of Illinois at Chicago professor of literature Walter Benn Michaels, after all, today’s humanistic academy has largely become the “human resources department of neoliberalism.” Michaels’ work suggests, in fact, that the “real” purpose of the professoriate promoting the interests of women and minorities has not been for the sheer justice of the cause, but rather to preserve their own antiquated and possibly ridiculous methods of “scholarship.” But that bargain however—if there was one—may perhaps be said to have had unintended consequences: among them, the reality that some CEOs enjoy pay thousands of times that of the average worker.
Correlation is not causation, of course, but it does seem inarguable that, as former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich wrote recently in Salon, Americans have forgotten the central historical lesson of the twentieth century: that a nation’s health (and not just its economic health) depends on consumer demand. As Reich wrote, contrary to those who argue in favor of some form of “trickle down” economics, “America’s real job creators are consumers, whose rising wages generate jobs and growth.” When workers get raises, they have “enough purchasing power to buy what expanding businesses [have] to offer.” In short (pardon, Secretary Reich), “broadly shared prosperity isn’t just compatible with a healthy economy that benefits everyone—it’s essential to it.” But Americans have, it seems, forgotten that lesson: as many, many observers have demonstrated, American wages have largely been stagnant since the early 1970s.
Still, that doesn’t mean the academy is entirely to blame: for the most part, it’s only because of the work of academics that the fact of falling wages is known to any certainty—though it’s also fair to say that the evidence can be gathered by a passing acquaintance with reality. Yet it’s also true that, as New York University professor of physics Alan Sokal averred some two decades ago, much of the work of the humanities since the 1960s has been devoted towards undermining, in the name of one liberatory vision or another, the “stodgy” belief “that there exists an external world, [and] that there exist objective truths about it.” Such work has arguably had a version of the political effect often bombastically claimed for it—undoubtedly, there are many more people from previously unrepresented groups in positions of authority throughout American society today than there were before.
Yet, as the Marxist scholars often derided by their “postmodernist” successors knew—and those successors appear to ignore—every advance has its cost, and interpreted dialectically the turn of the humanities away from scientific naturalism has two possible motives: the first, as mentioned, the possibility that territory once the exclusive province of the humanities has been invaded by the sciences, and that much of the behavior of professors of the humanities can be explained by fear that “the traditional humanities are about to be systematically debunked” by what Bakker calls “the tremendous, scientifically-mediated transformations to come.” In the wake of the “ongoing biomechanical renovation of the human,” Bakker says, it’s become a serious question whether “the idiom of the humanities can retain cognitive legitimacy.” If Bakker’s suggestion is correct, then the flight of the humanities from the sciences can be interpreted as something akin to the resistance of old-fashioned surgeons to the practice of washing their hands.
There is, however, another possible interpretation: one that accounts for the similarity between the statistical evidence of rising inequality since the 1970s gathered by many studies and the evidence in favor of the existence of global warming—a comparison not made lightly. In regards to both, there’s a case to be made that many of the anti-naturalistic doctrines developed in the academy have conspired with the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore reality to prevent, rather than aid, political responses—a conspiracy that itself is only encouraged by the current constitutional structure of the American state, which according to some academic historians (of the non-“postmodern” sort) was originally designed with precisely the intention of both ignoring and preventing action about another kind of overwhelming, but studiously ignored, reality.
In early March, 1860, not-yet presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln addressed an audience at New Haven, Connecticut; “the question of Slavery,” he said during that speech, “is the question, the all absorbing topic of the day.” Yet it was also the case, Lincoln observed, that while in private this was the single topic of many conversations, in public it was taboo: according to slavery’s defenders, Lincoln said, opponents of slavery “must not call it wrong in the Free States, because it is not there, and we must not call it wrong in the Slave States because it is there,” while at the same time it should not be called “wrong in politics because that is bringing morality into politics,” and also that it should not be called “wrong in the pulpit because that is bringing politics into religion.” In this way, even as slavery’s defenders could admit that slavery was wrong, they could also deny that there was any “single place … where this wrong thing can properly be called wrong!” Thus, despite the fact that slavery was of towering importance it was also to be disregarded.
There were, of course, entirely naturalistic reasons for that premeditated silence: as documented by scholars like Leonard Richards and Garry Wills, the structure of American government itself is due to a bargain between the free and the slave states—a bargain that essentially ceded control of the federal machinery to the South in exchange for their cooperation. The evidence is compelling: “between Washington’s election and the Compromise of 1850,” as Richards has noted for example, “slaveholders controlled the presidency for fifty years, the Speaker [of the House]’s chair for forty-one years, and the chairmanship of House Ways and Means [the committee that controls the federal budget] for forty-two years.” By controlling such key offices, according to these scholars, slaveowners could prevent the federal government from taking any action detrimental to their interests.
The continuing existence of structures originally designed to ensure Southern control—among them the Supreme Court and the Senate, institutions well-known to constitutional scholars for being offerings to society’s “aristocratic” interests even if the precise nature of that interest is never explicitly identified as such—even beyond the existence of slavery, in turn, may perhaps explain, naturalistically, the relative failure of naturalistic, scientific thinking in the humanities over the past several decades—even as the public need for such thinking has only increased. Such, at least, is what might be termed the “positive” interpretation of humanistic antagonism toward science: not so much an interested resistance to progress but instead a principled reaction to a continuing drag on not just the political interests of Americans, but perhaps even to the progress of knowledge and truth itself.
What’s perhaps odd, to be sure, is that no one from the humanities has dared to make this case publicly—excluding only a handful of historians and law professors, most of them far from the scholarly centers of excitement. On the contrary, jobs in the humanities generally go to people who urge, like European lecturer in art history and sociology Anselm Joppe, some version of a “radical separation from the world of politics and its institutions of representation and delegation,” and ridicule those who “still flock to the ballot box”—often connected, as Joppe’s proposals are, to a ban on television and an opposition to both genetically modified food and infrastructure investment. Still, even when—as Richards and Wills and others have—academics have made their case in a responsible way, none has connected that struggle to the larger issues of the humanities generally. Of course, to make such connections—to make such a case—would require such professors to climb down from the ivory tower that is precisely the perch that enables them to do the sort of thinking that I have attempted to present here, inevitably exhibiting innumerable, and perhaps insuperable, difficulties. Yet, without such attempts, it’s difficult to see how either the sciences or the humanities can be preserved—to speak nothing of the continuing existence of the United States.
Still, there is one “positive” possibility: if none of them do, then the opportunities for Schadenfreude will become nearly limitless.