The Enemy of the Humanities: Speed

How often do works of genius happen in the humanities fields?  Not works of intelligent, careful scholarship, which appear every year, but works that alter basic assumptions and practices, that change thinking.  These are the works that you can’t ignore if they touch upon your expertise, the ideas and methods that seem to mark a division of pre- and post-, as in literary criticism before Derrida and after.

In my area of literary studies, genuinely original and incisive books and essays come along infrequently–once a decade or so is my impression.  Literary studies moves forward with some 70,000 items of scholarship published every year, but  the arrival of the radically or sweepingly new, which takes the form of a theory more than that of a discovery, is altogether rare.  The humanities move slowly, 99.99 percent of its research labor being accretive or summary or contributory, not groundbreaking.

This places the humanities in a resistant position in contemporary knowledge spheres.  The discussions following Encyclopedia Britannica‘s decision to end the print edition (considered in my Chronicle Review piece) are a good example.  In explaining the plan, Britannica president Jorge Cauz highlighted the benefits of online tools, implying precisely the fast-paced state of knowledge today: “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive, and it has multimedia.”

Knowledge moves quickly, discoveries happen all the time, and so we need our “tools” to speed up.  The old version underwent revision only every 10 or 15 years, a snail’s pace compared to Moore’s Law.  This is the 21st Century, not the 18th Century, when Britannica began.  We need “continuous updates,” the abiding capacity to “expand.”  Britannica‘s editor-in-chief declared its commitment to the new speed limit: “Our editors work on a constantly evolving database, with revisions and updates publishable online within minutes.”

The problem is that while this pace matches areas of science, politics, technology, media, current events, and so on, it is damaging to the humanities, where knowledge slows to a plodding and circumspect tempo.  Even when a striking novelty appears, such as “digital humanities,” it takes years for the nature and implications of it to be determined and assimilated.  If we pressure the humanities to accelerate, we end up with some of the worst trends of recent years, including:

  • a ridiculous productivity mandate requiring young professors to publish a book and several articles in order to earn tenure;
  • a ridiculous anticipation of The Next Big Thing, that is, the next theory that might have the same impact as deconstruction, New Historicism, etc.;
  • a competition with the sciences, on the latter’s terrain, that the humanities are bound to lose;
  • an administrative demand that the humanities be more productive (money brought in, pages published, etc.)

Of course, it’s hard for the humanities to argue for “slowness,” in part because it sounds contrary to the present moment, and in part because it makes the humanities sound conservative, not progressive.  Ever since the 1960s, humanities professors with celebrity status have often aligned the fields with cutting edges, political radicalism, avant garde artists and writers, and campus social movements, leading them to regard the humanities as activist and forward-looking.  But they will never be able to be, in practice and in effect, as active and forward-looking as innovators in science and technology, nor as up-t0-date as mass media.  With knowledge moving so quickly in those latter realms, the claims of English professors to be “cutting-edge” are downright quaint.  The advent of digital technology itself has exposed “humanities progressivism” (to coin a term) as an empty claim.  The speed of those realms has become a real threat to the humanities, and we need leaders in the fields to craft defenses of them on the very grounds of their slow, plodding, backward-looking condition.

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