January 19, 2010

Why I am a Humanist

Filed under: POV — dhi @ 4:14 pm

By Blake Stimson, Professor of Art History

Understandably enough, it is sometimes said that we humanists could learn a thing or two from our friends in the sciences. After all, not only do they have greater access to public monies and private financial opportunities, they also enjoy the promise of relevance. The hard sciences can reasonably aim for the likes of a mapped genome or a worldwide web just as the soft sciences can realistically hope to redirect government policies and global business practices.

In our pursuit of significance we sometimes turn toward the ideal of the “public intellectual” and away from ivory-tower academicism. As well meaning and historically resonant as this turn is, at times it substitutes the principle of public access for that of public interest and, as a result, turns away from intellectuality instead. In this regard, we might take inspiration from our colleagues in the sciences when they buck their own institutional vertigo. With greater potential for relevance comes greater temptation and complicity, after all, so lessons of valor and determination can sometimes be had from scientists who take a stand.

There are many from the hard side that we might refer to in this way, of course: Cold War visionaries like Einstein or Oppenheimer—think of the latter’s 1953 Science and the Common Understanding, for example—or digital-era oracles like Tim Berners-Lee and Richard Stallman, or our own recent spate of environmentally-minded muses. “Every generation has its philosopher—a writer or an artist who captures the imagination of a time,” Lawrence Lessig once said writing about Stallman. “Our generation has a philosopher. He is not an artist, or a professional writer. He is a programmer” and founder of “a movement for freedom in a world increasingly defined by ‘code’.”

There are certainly more in the social sciences but we might limit ourselves to bad-boy sociologist Loïc Wacquant as our case in point. Leaning on his tenure as a military strategist in New Caledonia, his stint as an ethnographer-cum-boxer on the south side of Chicago, and, not least, his intellectual birthright as a Frenchman, Wacquant rails against American “public policy schools and private think tanks which serve as intellectual glacis or ‘shield’ that protects political decision-makers from critical thought” and, even more, against American “researchers who see themselves as academics rather than as intellectuals.” Latterday Dreyfusards who “smell of gunpowder and strike fear into the hearts of deans” fight the good fight on behalf of the public by levying their “J’accuse!” across the scholarly Atlantic at latterday Taylorists rejiggering the knowledge industry for an evermore privatized world.

As tawdry and predictable as this posture is, the gist may still serve us in our time of need. The distinction intellectual/academic performs a very different function than public/academic, of course, because its measure of relevance is intellectual. Intellectuality here is a moral category more than a technical one and its meaning is pretty simple: it does not concern itself directly with reaching beyond the insularity of the ivory tower to a lesser-educated public outside but instead with penetrating the hard façade of social and scientific rationalizations of all varieties to the soft, under-represented realm of the human and humane inside.

When it is done right, this sort of inquiry—humanist inquiry—is not the private indulgence it is sometimes accused of but instead is the greater measure of public intellectuality. The danger of accessibility as a governing criterion is that it instrumentalizes or Taylorizes knowledge by disaggregating and compartmentalizing inquiry and communication. This is often just a practical matter, of course, but when accessibility becomes a principle at the heart of scholarly inquiry the common humanity that exceeds the formulae, statistics, concepts, identities, and catchphrases we use as expedient shorthand is threatened.

“The public sphere has changed beyond recognition,” sociologist Zygmunt Bauman lamented recently in a bit of common reasoning, “It is now little more than a playground of private interests.” The freedom born of that bygone publicness was our relevance—our genome and worldwide web, it might be said, or our business model and government policy—and remembering so summons that which the sciences still draw from us. I am a humanist because I hope for an inkling of what that publicness might once have become.


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