In August of last year the psychologist Steven Pinker took to the pages of the New Republic to defend the relevance of science to “humanistic scholarship.” Science, he wrote, is “of a piece with philosophy, reason, and Enlightenment humanism,” and should accordingly be recognized as contributing to investigations concerning “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.” A month later, the New Republic’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, fought back. The humanities are “the study of the many expressions of human inwardness,” he argued, and therefore categorically inappropriate for the brand of empirical research advocated by Pinker. But Pinker, like the rest of the “scientizers,” would not be satisfied with “consilience” between science and the humanities anyway; what he really wants, according to Wieseltier, is for “the humanities to submit to the sciences, and be subsumed by them.”
The debate might as well have taken place in the 1960s, or in outer space. Pinker, the author of a recent doorstop on the virtues of a world created by scientific progress, behaves as if we were still living in the Dark Ages, alleging a “demonization campaign” against science led by powerful humanists such as the historian Jackson Lears and the ethicist Leon Kass (all Pinker has on his side are the administrations of nearly every research university in the country, not to mention the president of the United States). Wieseltier, on the other hand, trots out Tolstoy and Proust as if these nineteenth-century luminaries have anything to do with what is going on in contemporary English departments and philosophy workshops.
Ostensibly, Pinker and Wieseltier both address a question of disciplinary boundaries that arises within the modern research university, where the humanities denote a loose cluster of academic disciplines (Philosophy, English, Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies) devoted, supposedly, to the investigation of human arts and culture. But neither Tolstoy nor Proust were employed in the “humanities” in this sense (though it is fun to imagine Tolstoy’s face during a typical meeting of the Slavic Languages faculty at Brown) and increasingly they are not even studied in them. Stanley Fish, Gerald Graff and Martha Nussbaum are employed in these academic humanities, and these days they spend much of their time writing books and articles attempting to justify what they do. This is because they know the “humanities scholar” to be a gravely endangered species.
Fish, Nussbaum and Graff do not agree about why the academic humanities are dying, or on what makes the best case for their survival. Their lack of consensus (Nussbaum believes the humanities make for better citizens, Graff that they offer benefits for the economy) makes the humanities appear vulnerable to the recommendations of an outsider like Pinker. Pointing to the declining number of students enrolling in the humanities (a 2011 report showed that, nationally, the percentage of humanities majors hovers around 7 percent—half what it was in 1970), as well as the increasing funding gap between them and the sciences, Pinker alleges that the problem with the humanities is that they have “failed to define a progressive agenda” like the sciences. Not only does this oversight perplex Pinker, it is positively incomprehensible to the “university presidents and provosts” he drinks Chardonnay with, many of whom
have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.
To which we say: “Ha!” And: “If only!”
Sadly, the respect of present-day humanities scholars for “the way things have always been done” ranks just barely above their respect for the presidency of George W. Bush. There might have been a time when the humanities offered a counterweight within the university to the sciences’ relentless optimism and obsession with “progress,” but since at least the 1970s—perhaps not incidentally when the enrollment numbers began to decline—only the heretics have stood up for anything resembling tradition. Today’s humanities professors speak of nothing but “new research opportunities,” nothing but “progress,” nothing but the gross injustice of the “way things have always been done.”
Wieseltier and Pinker’s debate is thus academic in the pejorative sense. Wieseltier accuses Pinker of wanting the humanities to submit to the sciences; Pinker maintains that he simply wants the humanities to admit the relevance of scientific methods. Yet with a couple of exceptions (the Core at Columbia and the University of Chicago, the St. John’s colleges, that place out in the California desert where they herd cattle while debating Plato) the scholarly humanities have admitted much more than the relevance of the sciences: they have submitted; they have been subsumed. “Imagine,” writes Wieseltier,
a scientific explanation of a painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and the chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated.
Wieseltier is right that such an explanation would tell us everything except what we most want to know about the painting, but he is mistaken if he thinks we need imagine such procedures.
In recent years, nothing has so captivated humanities scholars as the idea that brain science, evolutionary biology and the “new psychology” will lead to breakthroughs (not to mention funding) for their fields. Since 2000, Harvard’s Elaine Scarry has hosted a seminar on cognitive theory and the arts, turning Harvard’s Humanities Center into a colloquium for supposedly path-breaking lectures such as “Where Time and Memory Collide: Maus and the Neuroscience of Comics” and “Speech, Gesture, Bodily Stance: Studying Multimodal Communication in a Massive Data Set.” Just two months before Pinker’s article appeared, the Nation reported optimistically on students at Stanford being hooked up to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) so that their brain waves could be charted as they read Mansfield Park; on the same campus, English graduates are encouraged to gather in a “literature lab” where the only required language is computer code (“In this class there will be 1,200 books assigned,” boasts one course description, “but students won’t read any of them”). Not to be outdone, Duke has staked its claim to leadership with a “neurohumanities” major and study-abroad curriculum whose description (“a six-week, two-course program that brings a vertically integrated and international learning community into sustained dialogue to advance theorizations at the crossroads of neuroscience and humanities systems of knowledge and disciplinary milieu”) we can only assume was written by artificial intelligence, while the New York Times reports, breathlessly, that the most advanced English professors are now “convinced science not only offers unexpected insights into individual texts, but that it may help to answer fundamental questions about literature’s very existence.” So it is not necessary to speculate theoretically on the role the sciences can play in the humanities; we can simply look, scientifically as it were, at the results so far.
Literary studies makes a good test case precisely because it is the field in which science has received the most extravagant embrace. A naïve onlooker might have been forgiven for assuming that this year’s “Impression and Object” conference—home to such lectures as “From Thermodynamics to Critical Theory: The Politics of Émile Zola’s Entropic Aesthetics” and “Digital Theophany: Affect and Software in the Cartographies Schizoanalytiques”—was being hosted by speculative chemists, as opposed to the CUNY Comparative Literature department. The concluding keynote address, delivered by Stanford professor Joshua Landy, continued the theme by examining the newest episode in the long and passionate courtship between literary studies and science, dubbed the “cognitive turn.” A lucid and clear writer, Landy has previously been the author of well-regarded literary scholarship on such topics as philosophical self-knowledge in Proust and the concept of “re-enchantment” in Mallarmé. There was reason to hope, therefore, that he would shed some genuine light—whether critical or favorable—on the latest trend to grip his discipline.
Landy began by cautioning for a few minutes about the dangers of excessive “scientism” or “neuromania”; literary scholars could be excitable, he allowed, and it was important not to assume that science was capable of solving all their problems. That said, the rest of Landy’s talk was devoted to heralding the “extremely important work” currently being done at the intersection of literature and empirical psychology. What kind of work is this? Most of the examples Landy gave involved the ability of empirical psychology to “verify” some of the claims that literary scholars have made in the past (for instance, “neurologists of reading” have shown that sound patterns do matter in poetry) and to disprove or “moderate” others (for example that reading Dickens makes us more empathetic, or that “all thoughts are linguistic”).1 Some literary theorists, he alleged, have argued that Virginia Woolf is not intrinsically superior to Dan Brown, and therefore that preferring Woolf is just snobbery. Fortunately the work of David Kidd and others shows there is a “measurable difference in outcome” between reading the two authors, meaning that evaluation doesn’t merely come down to “invidious class distinctions or the desire to accrue cultural capital.”
No doubt we are thankful to science for “proving” that it is a different experience to read To the Lighthouse than it is to read The Da Vinci Code. But surely the cognitive turn must offer something more than the confirmation of common sense. Perhaps more promising is the study trumpeted on the front page of Duke’s Neurohumanities website, which purports to offer a deeply original analysis of “data” collected from nineteenth-century British literature specialists for a study on “personality psychology.” Here was the report’s concluding statement:
Overall, [the researchers] found that Victorian authors’ depictions of personality and its impact on outcomes largely mirrored those established by modern psychology (e.g. female characters place more emphasis on extrinsic attributes in their love interests, while male more on physical attractiveness). They state that this realistic correspondence and recognizable psychology are necessary for readers to be able to understand the characters. … Thus, by applying techniques developed in personality psychology to literature in an entirely original fashion, these authors were able to unearth an adaptive function in Victorian literature—opening the door for an entirely new domain of neurohumanities.
Beneath the jargon—it’s as if the authors have turned the language of science against the standards of precision it was developed to satisfy—what exactly is going on here? This working group appears to have determined that Victorian novels are in part appreciated by readers because their characters have a similar psychology (well, a “realistic correspondence”) to that of human beings. Does research like this meet the requirements of the progressive agenda Pinker is calling for? It certainly says it does. Notice how the vocabulary grows even more opaque as the report attempts to articulate its own value. What does it mean to “unearth an adaptive function in Victorian literature”? And what exactly is the “new domain” of research that has been discovered? For all its scientific ambition, the conclusion testifies to the neurohumanities community’s inability to be objective about itself. It takes results that ought to encourage skepticism about the value of the neurohumanities and instead twists them into an endorsement for their significance.
But what does it mean, anyway, for something to be of significance in literary studies? The most striking thing about Landy’s lecture, for us, was the question he never asked. How can Landy or anyone else assess what constitutes “extremely important work” in literary studies without considering what is important about literary studies as it stands? And to consider this demands asking what literary studies are for. If this question is left unasked, it must be for one of two reasons: either there is broad consensus as to the purpose of literary studies (as there is, say, with medicine), in which case the question would be superfluous; or there is no consensus whatsoever, in which case it would be futile. Anyone who has even a glancing acquaintance with modern-day literary studies departments (and Landy has more than that) knows the situation is the latter. Yet the absence of consensus about the purpose of literary studies may be less revealing than the lack of a sense, among literary studies professors, that one is needed.
Wieseltier’s conviction that the humanities carry on the study of “human inwardness” is therefore not borne out in today’s literary studies departments, where not only have scientific methods been welcomed with open arms, but there seems to be little confidence that humanistic scholarship has any unifying program that could distinguish it from the sciences at all.
What we currently call the humanities should (mostly) be called the human sciences. What Landy is interested in has a name: it is called psychology. The professors who have recently struck Shakespeare and Chaucer from the required curriculum at UCLA, in favor of a mélange of gender, race and disability studies, are interested in (multi-)cultural history and political science. For decades, professors in English and Comparative Literature departments have been interested in linguistics, anthropology, sociology; at one time they were interested in psychoanalysis; further back than that, they did philology. All of these activities may have something to offer a robust literary studies but, notwithstanding the cheerleaders of consilience, at every “intersection” between fields a scholar must make the choice as to which discipline will lead the way. Literary studies may employ cognitive psychology in its attempt to better understand literary texts, but if it is driven by a psychological question (say, what is the effect of reading on moral sympathy?), then what is being done is psychology, not literary studies (and probably bad psychology, since it is carried out by people trained to read novels, not data sets).
But perhaps there is no longer any such thing as literary studies. It is not easy, after all, to find literature professors, at least in their roles as academics, who seem satisfied by what outsiders might naïvely assume to be the core function of something called literary studies: studying literature. Of course, this phrase is not as transparent as it might seem: What does it mean to study (as opposed to simply read) literature, and why would one be paid to do it? A more pointed way of asking the question is this: What do we, as readers, have to gain from someone who studies literature for a living?
There are many ways of answering that question: here is ours. We look to the literary scholar to tell us what is in, and at stake in, a work of literature. As someone who is presumed to have spent a long time with it, and therefore to have achieved an insight, born from experience, into its inner workings, the literary scholar is midwife to the literary work. “You speak from inside the poem as someone looking to see how the roof articulates with the walls and how the wall articulates with the floor,” says Helen Vendler about the activity of criticism. “And where are the crossbeams that hold it up, and where are the windows that let light through?”
Reading Vendler on Emily Dickinson, or Stanley Cavell on Beckett, or James Wood on Norman Rush, or Zadie Smith on David Foster Wallace, enriches our sense of what is going on in the literature written by those authors, and of how their work addresses us as readers. Every work of art, said Hegel, enters into a conversation with everyone who encounters it. That conversation can be enriched by the literary critic, who has conversed with thousands of works of art (or a few, but very deeply). Ideally she enriches it to the point where it joins the larger conversation we are always having with ourselves, about ourselves—a conversation which encompasses the sciences without looking to them for validation, and whose subject both includes and exceeds the territory described by Wieseltier’s “inwardness.”
Yet it is difficult to contribute to such a conversation: there is no set methodology for it, and anyway most university professors deny it has anything to do with them. When we write our dissertations, we are told that we are doing “research,” and this research is expected to be cumulative, objective. We therefore distance ourselves from those amateurs who continue to appeal to the humanities for reflection on such philistine topics as how to live or what to value. That is why the next turn, whether it be cognitive, or linguistic, or sabermetric, will no doubt be another turn away from the urgent questions that motivate most of us to pursue careers in the humanities in the first place.
This might seem a dire situation for the humanities; and it is, for the academic humanities. Fortunately, the humanities have always been bigger than the academic humanities. Unlike in the sciences, to participate in the conversation about what it means to be human does not require an advanced degree (increasingly it seems to be impeded by it)—which is why it should come as no surprise that the humanities are often more aggressively defended by magazine editors and op-ed columnists than by academics. In Wieseltier’s case, the argument for the sanctity of the academic humanities eventually tilts over into a call for what he calls the “old humanities,” examples of which (like Vendler’s recent piece on Dickinson) abound in the brilliant Books section over which he has stood guard since 1983.
Around the turn of the century, it may have seemed that the humanities were more endangered outside of academia than within it, given that their institutional framework (paper-and-ink magazines) was giving way. Against the predictions of doom-by-technology, however, the intervening years have seen the emergence of a series of online and print publications (n+1, LA Review of Books, the Believer, the New Inquiry) devoted to political and cultural analysis and to the close examination of art, television and literature. Those who write for these magazines are not opposed to academia; many of them are academics themselves—and it is not hard to find examples of articles corrupted by that association. Yet in the best pages of these magazines and websites, authors meet their audiences not as researchers but as readers and critics, showing us where the windows are that let the light in.
The new humanistic writing and its enthusiastic readership bear witness to the fact that, as long as there are human beings, there will remain an interest in scholarship and criticism that attempts to illuminate human problems. As we wait (and we will wait forever) to taste the milk and honey promised by Pinker’s “digital humanities,” we can only hope that academics will muster the courage to glance up from their research and join that conversation. In the meantime, to those perplexed, or simply disappointed, by the state of the academy, we say: Read a magazine!—starting with this one.