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But it is not always enough, for those of us concerned with the crisis of the humanities, to make a plausible case that our special training makes us uniquely qualified to be stewards of liberal democracy or the white-collar job market. Some of us go further and argue that humanities scholars might help save the world. In her new book, The Activist Humanist: Form and Method in the Climate Crisis, the Cornell humanities professor Caroline Levine makes this case — or tries to.
Somewhere between a monograph and a tract, Activist Humanist is full of bracing claims that supposedly buck the inherited common sense of academic humanists and of the left (these two, perhaps largely to their mutual loss, having become nearly synonymous). Levine attempts to give a new purpose to the humanists, who can no longer believe in such older legitimations of their work as the timeless ethical value of literary classics. She argues that scholars of literature and other fields in the humanities can make a contribution to our national political life — particularly the politics of climate change — through their study of what she calls “forms.” Having learned to attend to genre conventions, the structure of plots, meter, and other formal aesthetic features of texts, such scholars should ask how their objects of study offer “not the delights of surprise and complexity but practicable models we could put to use for climate justice?”
Many of Levine’s local assertions are sensible and useful. On the one hand, she finds that throughout the humanities, scholars have a troubled relationship with form: Left-liberal and radical humanists tend to celebrate a formless sort of negative, antinomian politics characterized by “instability, complexity, and open-endedness.” On the other, their less political (that is, quietly centrist and conservative) colleagues speciously separate form from content, starting from the “conviction that art is neither political nor programmatic” and that scholarship about art ought not to be either.
In Levine’s view, her colleagues on the academic left valorize “spontaneous” political movements, like the spectacularly unsuccessful Occupy Wall Street, over ones that require — as political work, indeed all work, inevitably does — discipline, hierarchy, and organization. Those Levine calls “forms,” and she argues that academics in the humanities have become more concerned with breaking them down than building them up. One reason for this is that critical and postmodern theory, as it was imported from Europe and redeveloped in American graduate seminars, disseminated powerful prejudices against attempts to systematize knowledge, explicate and defend social normativity, or project collective plans for the future. These were projects in which practitioners of the humanities and social sciences were traditionally understood to play a critical role. After Theory, such projects looked at best hopeless and, at worst, evil.
While Levine’s critiques of the academic left are compelling, they are also derivative.
In calling for a return to “form” in the face of climate change — an existential challenge that we will not solve without reinvigorating our lagging national capacity for rational collective political action — Levine is to be commended. From many quarters, it now appears evident that the major trends of American intellectual life since the 1970s have contributed to the narrowing of our horizons for serious political thinking, even as the sorts of associational life that traditionally supported democratic political action — from unions to mainline churches and social clubs — withered into irrelevance. A new appreciation for those “forms” and what they can do, and a new emphasis on constructive intellectual programs that might orient mass political action, will be welcome to many across the ideological spectrum.
We need to ask, then, whether there is anything so new or useful about declaring ourselves obligated by the demands of history to be rid of Theory, which, as Levine puts it, has prejudiced us against the very idea of “programs and plans” in our thinking and politics, instead enshrining “restless negativity” as the intellectual ideal.
Seen in this light, Levine’s appeal to “forms” represents a coming to self-consciousness of a trend in the mainstream of academic progressives. Over the past decade they have abandoned their self-understood role as outsider critics of American capitalism, empire, etc., for the supposedly more constructive role of watchdogs defending our embattled institutions and norms from the threats of authoritarian illiberalism and white supremacy. Although they may still imagine themselves as the intellectual heirs of Occupy, the left-liberals who make up the great majority of academic humanists and social scientists are, in their substantive politics, now generally in a position akin to that of neo-conservatives who abandoned the Marxism of their youth to become defenders of the establishment and of social normativity.
Although Levine chastises her colleagues for their suspicion of form and reluctance to engage in activism, she neglects the ways in which the university itself has become in recent years a key site of political work, almost inevitably aligned with the cultural left, albeit more through administrative offices and student services than through teaching or research. Universities have become engines for the dissemination of controversial dogmas about, for example, gender and race. The university has resumed its traditional, pre-postmodern role as clerical-training institution and defender of the faith.
Levine rightly takes issue with one longstanding sort of resistance to this role: academic humanists’ insistence that they are doing something neutral, apolitical, concerned only with aesthetics rather than politics, form rather than content. In our day, this insistence may appear to have a conservative flavor, representing a desire to be left out of the political and moral campaigns that in the past years have coursed through humanities departments, the university, and our society. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about it, any more than there is anything inherently progressive about Levine’s vision — now being realized before our eyes — of a repoliticized academy.
Anyone who believes that literature ought to be apolitical, or should be at most indirectly political, expressing a “thesis” or “worldview” only obliquely through the actions of multisided characters, in a plot the contours of which generate a pleasurable ambivalence in the reader, must confront the polemical intensity of the works at the center of our canon. It’s not clear, however, that there is in fact anyone who ought to be on the receiving end of Levine’s lecture. Certainly, to advocate something called “the aesthetic,” conceived as an unpolitical domain of literary enjoyment and edification, is to retreat not from today’s culture wars, but from the animating energies of literature itself. But such a straw man is rarely at the podium.
Literary scholars should — and do — take the political dimensions of literary works seriously. This doesn’t require them, however, to take themselves seriously as political agents — or to imagine that literature is a particularly effective tool of politics. For all the power of such exceptional works as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped to legitimize abolitionist sentiment in the United States, one could hardly claim that an hour spent writing fiction is equivalent in political efficacy to an hour spent canvassing for votes, marching in protests, or, more grimly, stockpiling arms. Only the most naïvely quant-brained political scientist, perhaps, would attempt to measure the relative impact of such diverse forms of politicking — and only the most self-aggrandizing humanist could claim that fiction-writing would come out ahead!
Academic progressives have abandoned their role as outsider critics of American capitalism for the supposedly more constructive role of watchdogs defending our embattled institutions.
There are scholars for whom such objects are natural objects of analysis — political scientists and media-studies experts with actual disciplinary knowledge who through careful work have learned to think about the production, circulation, and political efficacy of such varied artifacts in ways that scholars of literature have not. Rather than recognize that the writing and study of literature might be rather irrelevant to political work organized around the dissemination of information and propagandistic calls to action, however, Levine argues that humanist scholars are well-equipped by their disciplinary training to move among, and give order to, the range of forms required to fight climate change. They can be the avant-garde of a “formalism not limited by discipline,” linking diverse objects of study and methodologies by revealing how all of them are different sorts of forms that must be marshaled in the struggle with climate change. Literary scholars trained to think about “form” in the organization of literary works can become, as it were, the quarterbacks of progressive thought and politics. The irony of advocating a limitless, postdisciplinary eclecticism in the name of “form” (with its connotations of rigor, discipline, and order), while condemning postmodern thought for its fuzzy-brained invocations of the spontaneous and rhizomatic, seems to have escaped her.
Levine’s claims about the need for a transdisciplinary new approach to “forms” seem to assert for literary study philosophy’s old status as Queen of the Sciences. “Forms” are indeed so ubiquitous in her telling that the word comes to name merely one of those vast abstractions — like space, matter, bodies — by which scholars in a hurry to put a conference together, or justify their coherence of a monograph made of unrelated articles, throw into an empty nonconcept a heap of disconnected things. For the sake of the planet, the survival of which seems to require all of us to contribute our professional skills to political activism, Levine urges us to overthrow the (already vanishing) postmodern intellectual consensus. But perhaps the most vital legacy of that postmodernism consists in the sort of skeptical, cautious attention by which we can resist conflating the urgency of global crises with our own parochial pursuits of relevance.