The following is an edited transcript of remarks delivered by Lisa Ruddick at High Concept Laboratories in Chicago on June 5, 2014. Professor Ruddick and the other two panelists were asked to respond to The Point’s issue 8 editorial on the new humanities.
I find myself deeply in agreement with both of the previous speakers, and I think Robert you did a great job of identifying and mapping out the perfect storm of factors that are responsible for the crisis of confidence in the academic humanities right now and that make us … reach for the sciences for validation.
I often think that part of the problem for English professors is that a lot of our work is like the work of a yoga teacher. A yoga teacher is plagiarizing the wisdom of other yoga teachers, and when we teach close reading in a classroom, we’re passing on the yoga of sitting with the complexities of a text and getting a finely grained, dimensional account within oneself of what the text is about and what makes it work. Well, this is a great embarrassment for those who work at what Robert describes as the modern research university, where, as the article puts it, we are always on the lookout for “exciting research opportunities.” If you were taking a yoga class from a yoga teacher who had a lot of students who felt better and did better the next week, versus one who is exploring exciting research opportunities in the breath, I would pick the first one.
In Leon Wieseltier’s article, one of the provocations for The Point’s editorial, Wieseltier writes about the humanities as the study of the many expressions of human inwardness. And when I think about the yoga of teaching or the discipline of being a scholar of literature, without the inward dimension everything gets dehydrated. But it’s this inward dimension that’s come under attack from two different sources within the discipline of English. So much of what I’m going to be saying is within the discipline of English, and then I’ll end with some comments on how we within the humanistic disciplines can fight back against some of the dehumanizing clichés of the last thirty years of scholarship.
So, what’s new about inwardness? I’m very interested in the work that’s been done at the intersection of psychoanalysis and Buddhism; I’m a psychoanalytic literary critic myself and I’m also a Buddhist—and often what people on both sides excitedly discover, or the occasional psychoanalyst who’s also a meditation teacher, is that Buddhism has a dense, brilliant psychology, and psychoanalysis has a dense, brilliant psychology. So you can put them in contact with each other.
But just to echo Robert’s point about how something that’s really wizened and canny about the human condition or human nature isn’t going to end up invalidating the traditional findings about human nature, or the human condition, or human subjectivity, you can always find ways to develop a new vocabulary or enrich what’s happening, but there’s nothing about [the new scientific studies of] inwardness that is going to overturn what we already know. The fMRIs can show where the introspection center is located in our brain—I think it’s somewhere right here (points to a spot on her head above and behind her temples). OK, then great, so there is an inward dimension and so all the Marxists in English who say there’s no such thing as interiority—they’re wrong! So you can see how pallid the findings are that can sometimes result from neurocriticism.
I actually respect the cognitive turn in English and have taught courses on the cognitive approaches to literature both at the graduate and undergraduate level. You could, let’s say, embrace something that’s being done in cognitive psychology and put it alongside some classical, narratological account of literary experience, and some shiny new findings can emerge. It gives more nuance and some new insights into how people process a narrative. So it’s all OK. But the problem for many practitioners is that people who are interested in traditional questions having to do with the human condition will feel like their interests are stale. If you have to appeal to provosts by saying, “I’m exploring an exciting new research opportunity where I’m collaborating with a cognitive linguist, and we’re showing that a narrative in the Balkans shares some features with the narratives in… graphic fiction in the U.S.” then the thing that’s getting you the cachet, subjectively, starts feeling like the thing that’s important. So, for a book in progress on the state of the academic humanities, I’ve interviewed a lot of Ph.D. students in the humanities, in English and various allied departments, and subjectively what happens is there’s a kind of depression about the little self that came into this profession in order to pursue what that little self at the time felt were timeless questions. I think there’s no way around [the fact] that what gets money from administrations is going to end up feeling like it’s something to be prouder of than the seeking self that wants to answer for oneself and one’s students the kinds of questions that Robert was talking about—what should I do? what should I believe?—questions of value, and then also the questions of what it means to have a human subjectivity and to make meaning of one’s life.
So an example of this depressive environment is an ADE seminar—this is the Association of Departments of English—where a wonderful scholar of the digital humanities named Kate Hayles was presenting on something she calls “hyper-reading,” which is the kind of reading that those of you in the audience who are under the age of thirty are a lot better at than my generation—coasting, looking for patterns. What Hayles did was to validate hyper-reading as the new mode of subjectivity in such a way that what she calls “deep reading,” or the search for meaning as against pattern, became devalued and then in the conversations after her talk got connected with “the traditional study of English.” So people who were interested in meaning rather than pattern will feel like they’re lugging along something stale. They’ll feel like it couldn’t actually be that important that I came into this discipline to try to share with other human beings the questions of what it is to have a good life or to be human.
Compounding this problem of scientism in English, where the digital humanities register as scientific (it probably shows how ignorant we are in English since it’s probably not that scientific), is the reaching for something new from the impressive, seemingly hard sciences to validate what you’re doing. Another problem is the dominance of Marxist thought in the academic humanities. So this is part of the perfect storm, as I see it, because the Boomer generation—my generation—when it came of age and many of us entered the academic humanities, started questioning the whole idea of humanity and the idea of inwardness. According to academic Marxist theory, inwardness itself is quietistic; the notion of the inner life as I’ve already suggested is bourgeois, and it is really the larger social forces that determine who we are and what the nature is of our subjectivity, and along with this comes a depreciation of everything modern and Western, including supposedly, the individuated self or the introspective self. So, then the depression gets compounded. You’re not only doing something traditional, you’re doing something quietistic, if you’re interested in the play of subjectivity as it reflects itself in the form or the content of the works you’re studying.
And along with a feeling of depression, or part of it, is a feeling of having to lie a little bit in order to write a publishable, marketable dissertation, or to get tenure. This dissembling, I think it’s a really pervasive problem in at least the humanities. It might be true in physics for all I know, that everybody says, “I like string theory,” but secretly they think otherwise, but it’s really a problem in English—I just know from many years of living in this profession, as well as from these interviews. I have some very funny quotes from people about how they feel they have to lie all the time in order to get a job.
So where do you go from here? My own small solution is to re-introduce the inward dimension by actually going to the sciences. The article makes the observation, “Surely the cognitive turn must offer something more than the confirmation of common sense.” Well, if common sense has been marginalized by a discipline, then actually you can turn to the sciences to fight back against what we can telegraphically call the poststructuralist or Marxist pieties of the academic humanities. So it turns out the self is not bourgeois; it’s our birthright. Subjectivity is not only Western; it turns out that neuroscientists but also cognitive psychologists have proven that mentalizations—the knowing of a mind by itself—is an ordinary and healthy part of rich human functioning. In my book I’m fighting back against poststructuralism, just a little bit through this route—it’s a way of getting leverage against what I perceive as the lies of my discipline. So you could say that I’m playing the game because we all secretly—many of us—know that there is such a thing as a self that we send our selves or our family members to therapists, who believe in subjectivity or the inner life.
It’s too bad that one does have to play the game, but in fact I’ve found this dimension of my work very fun and interesting, and I would say that any time that a discipline is cast under the light of another discipline, it can help to illuminate the playing field and weaken some of its entrenched orthodoxies.
Read the comments presented by the other panelists:
● Robert Pippin on the history of crises in the humanities
● Jonathan Rosenbaum on cultural barbarism and film
Art credit: Chad Magiera; event photos by Lindsay Atnip