After the panel was over, a senior academic put up his hand and said, ‘These papers were all excellent, but one thing struck me – why are you all so conservative?’ I agreed to the point of formulating a clap or two. None of the three early career academics who had been asked to talk about ‘the future of the humanities’ at this ‘sandstone’ university were angered. One, a French literature academic, even embraced the comment. Her argument was that her disciplinary endeavour had trained her towards certain practices. Fully aware of the implications of that statement, she rounded her argument by suggesting that the future of humanities relied very much on an ahistorical capacity for close-reading.
This wasn’t a question of these academics denying climate change or arguing for free markets. This was a conservatism that looked back to past traditions to ground their work. As one of them suggested, there was little value in trying to formulate a future. Scholarship on offer was, after Matthew Arnold, a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.
Liberal humanism is alive and well in the new academy.
Another panel member from the Digital Humanities bamboozled the largely middle-aged audience with the capacity of big data collections to be searched for meanings only apparent when the sum of, say, Enlightenment French literature is made available to programming heuristics and algorithms. While this mightn’t be the ‘close-reading’ advocated by the first academic, it was certainly within the same hermeneutic ballpark.
‘Distant reading’, it is called, but the object of that distant reading was nonetheless the canon. So much of where humanities disciplines cross digital technologies might be fascinating and potentially fruitful – but this seemed very much like privileged pleasure-seeking.
The final panellist gave a paper harking back to Kant, and settling on Humboldt as the founder of modern disciplinarity within the institutional academy. Disciplinary rigour and reflecting on the ineffability of knowledge, he argued, was a virtue not just of the humanities, but the sciences, and of knowledge generally. Disciplinarity meant framing the unknown, discovering the unknowable. It was if half a century of critical engagement with this mode of thinking had never happened.
The conservatism of the younger panel was at least honestly framed. Earlier in the day, that wonderful example in the new academy of the Kool-Aid drinker—a high ranking academic administrator—had charmingly dissembled on the value of the humanities as a kind mass market dissemination of western thought to the world. Citing a MOOC on ethics that had achieved 19000 enrolments and had as one of its first graduates a 10-year-old boy from New York, she suggested the positive value of the humanities as a global project of knowledge dissemination, as well as ‘achieving more enrolments in one semester in one class than the university had achieved in 50 years of operation.’ Go team!
We might call this radical conservatism. We’ve come to expect it from decades of neoliberal hegemony: conservative in that it seeks to buttress existing institutions because ‘no other way is possible’; and radical because it constantly calls for innovation, flexibility and change at the behest of competition and marketization. In one sense the conservatism of the young academics could be seen as a reactionary measure to the legacy of the generation that came before it.
Nonetheless, while the ‘new realities of academic life’ speech was to be expected from an academic administrator, what wasn’t expected was the internationally-recognised cultural studies academic who told a story of how we should be adjusting for the Chinese knowledge boom and the rapid commodification of humanities disciplines as a buttress for consumer culture arising from Chinese government policy. The only true note came from an equally respected academic who, with an air of sorrow and surrender, reflected that the only way to ‘sell’ the humanities in a world run by economists was to emphasise its capacity to impart skills for the employment market. That was, unfortunately, all.
Beyond the radical market conservatism and the harking back to liberal humanism, I think conservative here also meant ‘timidity’. Overall, the tenor of the colloquium was one of eloquently expressed and intellectually-stimulating job preservation. The unspoken title may have been ‘how to stay employed in the global academy.’ One audience member commented that the elephant in the room in regard to the panel of younger academics was the fact that to gain employment in contemporary academia one had to be versed in relatively conservative and uncontroversial modes of knowledge. Survival, in other words, meant towing the line, keeping your head down, and measuring success via the number of papers and books published rather than their knowledge content.
I suggest there was one further unspoken conservatism sitting elephant-like in the room. All three panellists had been educated in the USA, two of them at the University of Chicago, where philology is the form taken to train the new people of thought and feeling. The privilege was palpable – an institutional privilege that comes at an unspoken cost and at a very high price.
Earlier in the day the vice-chancellor had welcomed us in a short perfunctory speech that waved vaguely at the humanities from his discipline of engineering: ‘We in the sciences need the humanities and creative arts, and that’s a fact widely acknowledged.’ This was, however, the vice-chancellor, who, a few weeks earlier, in his position as the representative of similarly privileged universities, had called for the deregulation of the tertiary sector in Australia, a move that seeks to expose higher education to market forces in the name of ‘excellence’ (though that excellence was only to be shared amongst a select few institutions with the already significant market power to enjoy it).
And this was a university, as one helpful academic brought up in a question during the day, that had cut its drama program, radically restructured its music school, and was about to perform similar surgery on its art school. This was on top of collapsing departments and cutting jobs within traditional humanities disciplines, and all those other things that are expected of contemporary universities.
All that could be mustered in response was a vague unease when someone mentioned what was happening in Gaza, and an elegant reading of Marguerite Duras.
You could say that it always has been thus, and you’d be right. But there was a time not so long ago when crusty old academics had to fight against a brigade of young upstarts questioning their authority – and most of that questioning happened within the humanities disciplines.
Nobody in the colloquium asked questions of power – the real value, it seems to me, of the humanities. In middle-age, that once-young brigade has now fallen into scepticism and surrender. They have made the new academic world in their own image.
And for the next generation, the conservatism of their distant forebears feels as radical as one is allowed to be.