Tuesday, 3 July 2007

A new humanist from the humanities?

Has anyone read the book by John Brockman, Science at the Edge? I'm intrigued by anything about the so-called "new humanists" (of which I count myself), but I was particularly disturbed by some of Brockman's opening statements.

First, he seems to assume that humanities is a closed-circuit discipline, firmly and irreversibly separated from the "hard" sciences. I partly agree with this, though I see many of my colleagues (all in the humanities) attempting to bridge that gap in their research and writing. It is certainly something I intend to do (maybe unsucessfully) in my upcoming dissertation. He seems to define the "new humanists" as scientists who have recognized the apparently dismal state of the humanities and choose to communicate their research in a humanist way to the general public - i.e., what their scientific knowledge means for you. What irked me first is the way that he continually disses 'the humanities' (as if they were monolithic anyway).
He assumes that humanities 'icons' are not interested in science, not interested in communicating anything other than pessimistic messages about the "sick modern society." He describes the state thusly:

"Meanwhile, the traditional humanities establishment continues its exhaustive insular hermeneutics, indulginig itself in cultural pessimism, clinging to its fashionably glum outlook on world events." (p.4)

This he contrasts with the "openness" of science, which explores endless questions, without bias, accepting of contradictory findings, always studying some objective "something." His "new humanists," the scions of a more optimistic and useful intellectual endeavor, come strictly from the world of scientific study, not from the humanities.

To be fair, his critique is of those academics whose scholarship operates uninformed by the 'scientific' aspects of their field. He states:

"One can only marvel at, for example, art critics who know nothing about visual perception; 'social constructionist' literary critics uninterested in the human universals documented by anthropologists; opponents of genetically modified foods, additives, and pesticide residues who are ignorant of genetics and evolutionary biology." (p.3)

This is something with which I firmly agree. But researching this material and using it is not outside the ability of humanities scholars. At any rate, it is just as feasible as Brockman's scientists who use their research to make claims about modern cultural issues without studying history or literature or the theories of cultural studies. Moreover, I think his faith in the ability of science's cultural claims is a bit unrealistic: one of the reasons the humanities distanced itself from the sciences in the first place (beginning perhaps with anthropology in the early 20th century) is that the humanities allows for the notion that no science is entirely objective - there is always a subjective (human) element in the creation of scientific knowledge. The scientific method failed to provide consistent data in the early studies of human cultures. Cultural theory, history, etc. aim partly to identify and account for this subjectivity of study. It began as a corrective for science's claims of authority and objective truth.

Similarly, I agree with Brockman that the past is not useful when studied merely for the past's sake. History should be (but arguably always is) a 'presentist' project. I think, though, that there are humanities scholars who can manage to create useful and accessible scholarship for the modern day.

Another one of his points that I find interesting (and useful for a debate about the various merits of the humanities and the sciences) is his assertion that "humanities academians talk about each other, [while] scientists talk about the universe." (p.6) His assesment of the scientific community (in opposition to the humanities community) is interesting:

"[Scientists] are both the creators and the critics of their shared enterprise.... Through the process of creativity and criticism and debates, they decide which ideas get weeded out and which become part of the consensus that leads to the next level of discovery." (p.6)

This brings up an interesting observation of mine, namely, that the scentific community is in fact looking for a consensus. They work collaboratively, they encourage collaboration, and their work is conceived of as a useful piece of a big puzzle, one which they should share with the rest of the scientific community. Humanities academics work in an entirely opposite way. We are taught to guard our opinions as intellectual property, we are taught not to work in groups (much less publish in groups), and we are taught to differentiate our own independent voices from those voices that have gone before us. We are not (at least nowadays) looking for consensus, or seeing our work as a piece of an objective identifiable puzzle.

But why would the humanities want to look for consensus? Our barest assumptions - that study itself is a subjective process, that interpretation is unique and dialogic and changing, that what we study is also always changing - lead us to believe that there is no pinnable objective "thing" parallel to that real and present universe that the scientists supposedly have, and no concrete method comparable to the scientific method, which, as Brockman states, functions broadly across the scientific disciplines. Where this leaves us, though, is unclear. Certainly, the in-fighting of academics in the humanities does not help the society as a whole learn and progress. Collaborative and dialectical work should be encouraged and rewarded in the humanities. Scholars should make an effort to learn the science of their field as well as the literature, history, etc. But those people who work in the humanities should not be discounted as lost causes; there is a prodding from their side as well for more 'humanist' modern work.

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