Jim Clifford as a part of a roundtable on “The University We Are For” presented this paper calling for substantially more unified “Greater Humanities”. You can see video of Clifford delivering his paper too. Click the timeline to start at 71 minutes in. Expect to wait a minute while the video loads to the cued spot. The talk is fifteen minutes in length.
The point of this conference was to set aside practicality in reimagining the university. Think big. Think utopian. What do we want the university to be? If you could have it all, what would you make the university into?
Clifford accepts this “license to want” as an opportunity to resist being put on the defensive in the never ending contest for scarce resources. Instead he aims to actively combat what he calls “belittlement” or the shrinking of the liberal arts to make way for the practical courses of study that lead to jobs or produce goods for sale on the market.
He imagines a coalition, the Greater Humanities, which he sees as “a deeply rooted configuration of knowledge practices.”
Here’s another sketch map of the Greater Humanities—by disciplines this time, most of them internally divided.
* Literature (a vast archipelago)
* History also very widely extended now (including Art History and Visual Culture, and why not? Archaeology…)
* Philosophy (still divided along “two cultures” lines– hard/soft, analytic/continental. But there are signs of movement along this front?)
* Linguistics (also a divided field: do we need to chose between the traditions of Sapir and Chomsky?)
* All the “studies” inter-disciplines: American Studies, Women’s/Feminist Studies, Ethnic Studies, Cultural Studies, Science and Technology Studies… etc.
* Socio-Cultural Anthropology (my own second home) and Historical Archaeology, Human Geography, Qualitative Sociology, some of Environmental Studies…
* Film, Digital Media, Communications.
* Important sectors of Politics, Economics, and Psychology.
* And what we might call the theoretical “Arts”—including Theatre Arts and performance Studies.
This leaves out a good deal, I’m sure. But the map is, I trust, big enough to make my basic, and rather crude, point.
Drawing these disciplines together is a habitus shared across the humanities, some of the social sciences, some of the arts, and with allies in the natural sciences. Clifford identifies this connective tissue as four “knowledge practices”.
The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.
1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.
2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…
3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.
4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.
As anybody who has ever struggled to find funding can attest the deepest pockets are to be found in the so-called STEM fields. Clifford contemplates how to respond and finds an answer, of sorts, in the foundational thinkers of social science: Weber, Durkheim, Marx, Freud, and others. They were, “non-reductive, imaginative, yes “humanistic” thinkers, concerned with the unconscious, with indeterminate behaviors and complex, over-determined motivations.”
The revolt against positivism wasn’t then (and isn’t now) a revolt against science. But against a narrow, instrumentalist vision of science, a vision that fetishizes quantifiable, auditable outcomes—immediately useful (to whom?) and marketable (for whose benefit?)
It’s hard to look at the contemporary scene and imagine the university as we know it will remain for much longer. For those of us looking to make our livings as employees at institutions of higher learning the future looks very uncertain. And it does seem that anthropology’s share of the pie is shrinking. You can see it now on the horizon, something is coming for our discipline and the institutions that house it.
What is it? And, if we had a choice, what would we even want it to be?