Notes on the Politics of the Humanities

The humanities academy is now in the middle of a full-fledged economic collapse. The MLA, which advertises almost all North American tenure-track jobs in literature, recorded the largest fall ever in the number of openings this year; the number of openings advertised in 2009 was roughly half that in 2007.

It’s not just underfunded public institutions that are sinking, either: impelled by the stock market’s decline, private universities have cut and frozen hiring and even announced staff layoffs — the by now thoroughly corporatized mindset of upper-level administrators means they prioritize protecting investments over using endowments for their supposed mission, to protect the budget of the institution and support its intellectual and instructional priorities. Universities’ adminstrative spending has skyrocketed, as growth in the cost of attending college far outpaced inflation(PDF), over the past two decades, while instructional budgets remained constant; but faculty in the lowest-paid disciplines are nonetheless now bearing the brunt of their management’s newfound interest in austerity. The humanities have long been the home turf of adjunct piece-work casualization (why hire a tenure-track professor when four adjuncts can teach their courses with no benefits for a quarter the cost?) — as Cary Nelson called English in Academic Keywordsa decade ago, “America’s Fast-Food Discipline” — but the trend has intensified to the point that it now seems we may actually be seeing the end of the humanities as an institutionally supported concern.

It now seems possible — plausible if not yet certain — that the 2010s and 2020s will witness the more or less complete destruction of the literary and historical academy. Nor will the critical social sciences[1]necessarily be far behind: the “university” of twenty or thirty years from now may simply be a purely instrumentalized extension filling the direct needs of the corporate-military state, with nearly noplace left for independent research, pure knowledge-production, or heterodox social critique. Caught between the mainstream student-consumer demand for the unchallenging BA as certification for white-collar employment and the corporate-administrative pressure for “productivity” of only immediately “useful” research, literature, philosophy, history, have little institutional support left on any side.

What would a successful defense of the humanities look like? It would need to begin with the cessation of the unproductive canon-wars of the ’90s — with the forging of a solid ideological common ground between the cultural-conservative defenders of the Great Books and their counterparts on the identity-politics “left.”[2] Such an ideological meeting-ground would provide the extra-institutional drive to preserve the humanities which was so sorely missing through the destructive Kulturkämpfe of the 1990s. The Great Books canon-conservatives, who ought to be natural allies and defenders of the humanities’ mission of literary-historical-philosophical preservation, were sidelined — or even made complicit in attacking the university — by the vehement if nonsensical assault on “tenured radicals” (by David Horowitz and his ilk, who are largely cultural philistines but inhabitants of the conservative “big tent” of false consensus).

Within the university support must be generated from tenured faculty, whose common “I-got-mine” complacency must, somehow, be neutralized in order to effectively organize against the threat of total, if gradual, disciplinary apocaplypse-by-attrition (and by adjunctification). The reconversion of the tenured, more than any other factor, might provide the reinvigoration needed by the academic labor movement. However necessary, though, the radicalization of the already-tenured, as much institutionalized not to rock boats as their timorous junior colleagues, seems unlikely in the extreme.

If there has been no significant organized activism among tenured faculty in decades, the student movement remains, in some places, active. Might the new student militants, largely working-class students at urban (and mostly public) universities, be recruited as saviors of the humanities, against the more complacently careerist children of privilege?

[1] Rather than between “soft” and “hard” social sciences, the real distinction to be drawn is between research that is, or can be, directly instrumentalized by corporate or military or state power and research that resists or refuses such uses: between instrumental and critical social science.

[2] The soi-disant “academic left” of canon-broadening identity politics, that is: objectively the center-right.