Monday, December 13, 2010

The Greater Humanities

Here is the transcript of an interesting talk given by James Clifford about the "Greater Humanities". Two things of interest to an Austrian economics approach to understanding literature are:

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.

You may disagree with my shorthand characterizations, but I hope you will recognize a set of intellectual dispositions, a habitus, that link the humanities, a lot of the social sciences and the theoretically-informed arts.

where he lays out what makes the humanities distinct, and how observations on positivism, in which he sites H. Stuart Hughes, Consciousness and Society (1958):

Hughes, an intellectual historian in dialogue with Talcott Parsons and other leaders of Harvard’s “social relations” initiative, wrote in reaction to the 1950s boom in “social science.” His response begins with a chapter called “The Revolt against Positivism.” Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Croce, Pareto, Marx and Gramsci--the founders of modern social analysis-- emerge as 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?) Does this sound familiar? I’m updating Hughes 1950s intervention for the neo-Liberal present, where we confront an economistic positivism perfectly adapted to the sink-or-swim, bootstraps (find your own grant support), privatized logics of an “entrepreneurial” system of rewards and punishments.

There are a few things of note that Austrians can and should address. One is of course the fact that the Austrians are left out of this list of anti-positivists. Another is that we need to address the consequences of the Austrian economists being left out of this list: the fact that an economic view doesn't have to be "economistic positivism", as well as the fact that the intersections between the humanities and the economy are not necessarily negative (not to mention the bizarre -- to an Austrian -- description of "entrepreneurial"). One might in fact address why they are perceived to be negative (saying they are all a bunch of Marxists over in the humanities is too easy: what experiences are they having to make them have this attitude? why?). The Austrians on subjectivism and subjective values in particular may be of particular interest to humanities scholars.

I believe Austrian economics might be in a unique position to rescue the humanities -- from both the dominating positivism of our universities and from the humanities themselves.

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