The Public Needs Saving, Not the Humanities

by Stephen Groening

I recently had the good fortune of winning a PhD seminar development grant through the “Reimagining the Humanities PhD and Reaching New Publics” initiative funded by the Mellon foundation and run by the University of Washington’s Simpson Center for the Humanities. This initiative had an ambitious but simply-stated goal: to pursue institutional change within the university to reorient the university towards the public humanities. In part a response to the changing economic structures around higher education, it recognized that in an age of austerity, precarity is the watchword for new PhDs. Therefore, the place of the intellectual—here narrowly defined as someone whose role, vocation, and job is to think about thinking—can also be off-campus. Part of the initiative was also aimed at getting PhD students from a top-ranked university to consider pursuing careers at community colleges; in other words, reorienting professorial training to address the large numbers of students enrolled in open-admissions public institutions and not just within the narrow confines of well-endowed private universities and nationally recognized four-year public research universities. This public humanities initiative was thus something that promised to help PhD students think about work outside the academy or how their work might speak to those outside the academy and – this is a bit of a long shot – perhaps convince an increasingly hostile and skeptical ruling class that education is a public good not an individual benefit.

The turn towards public humanities tacitly acknowledges that the demand for humanities PhDs within higher education proper has been actively curtailed. In combination with an emphasis on the vocational that has been in place essentially since the postwar implementation of the GI bill, the defunding of public higher education at the state level since 2008 has made the prospects for job seekers in the academic job market bleak.  This defunding has coincided with a kind of doubling down on vocational emphases, especially in the previous few decades as the demographics of university students have changed from predominantly white wealthy men to include a wider range of groups

Many current arguments calling for reform or radical changes in higher education are marked by demands that higher education become more efficient, “prepare students for the workplace,” create the “leaders of tomorrow,” abandon “impractical” and “useless” fields (such as literature or foreign languages). The public humanities are thus stuck in a situation in which its proponents think the urgent task is to achieve public “buy-in” for comparative literature, art history, and the like, usually by expounding the virtues of “soft skills” for workplace and career. 

Public humanities projects often mean work produced by intellectuals working within the university system aimed at those outside of the university system.  In this way, the public humanities—as phrase and as project—suggests that the humanities are in the academy, while the public is out there somewhere on the streets, in their homes, or in the workplace. A corollary to this proposition is that academic outputs are too esoteric, too jargon-filled and too difficult for everyday folks.  Thus humanities scholarship must be made more accessible, not just in terms of appearing in places outside the university classrooms and libraries but accessible in the sense that little beyond high school training is necessary to comprehend it.

Behind this proposition and its corollary is the assumption that there are benefits tangible and otherwise that already exist in ongoing work in the humanities. Therefore, the problem is that there is no interface between the ivory tower and the masses, to use some loaded phrasing. If the mission of the public humanities is to produce greater dialogue between academics and non-academics, it’s not clear to me how these initiatives actually foster and support the work of non-academics. Not just because of funding distribution, but because the entire project rests upon the premise that somehow turning Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from a dense and difficult book into a blog or Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism into a series of YouTube videos would inject new energy into the humanities, produce widespread interest in humanities scholarship, and even re-energize a moribund field. Many proponents of the public humanities think of the humanities as a good product with bad marketing.

What I have just described, in very broad strokes, positions the public as audience. Rather than a conception of the public which requires the public use of private reason – an ideal dating all the way back to Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment” – this version of the public humanities treats people as consumers, little different from subscribers to Netflix or those “Great Courses” advertised in inflight magazines. In other words, the public of this particular strain of public humanities is not offered a chance to reply, to contemplate, or to develop opinion through discussion and debate.

I mentioned earlier a whole host of structural changes in higher education which has brought us to this point and the turn to public humanities. Many would argue that these changes—the defunding of public education, the instrumentalization of the bachelor’s degree, the war on academic freedom in the name of austerity—are anti-intellectual. If these trends are indeed anti-intellectual, the logic goes, we need the public humanities to convince others that ostensibly non-instrumental fields, like comparative literature or art history, actually give people useful skills for today’s economy. And that argument can be found in lots of places.

…the entire project rests upon the premise that somehow turning Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble from a dense and difficult book into a blog or Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism into a series of YouTube videos would inject new energy into the humanities, produce widespread interest in humanities scholarship, and even re-energize a moribund field. Many proponents of the public humanities think of the humanities as a good product with bad marketing.

But I would argue that the United States, its politicians and legislators and corporate titans, are hardly anti-intellectual. They want skills, they want talented individuals, they want certain types of expertise. People still respect doctors, rocket scientists, computer engineers, and economists; all of whom have their own jargon and inaccessible prose. The issue with these fields and the particular qualities that are welcomed and respected is that they are, by and large, affirmative. Rightly or wrongly, the STEM fields are not seen as a threat to the existing social order; in fact, they are usually positioned as the path to utopia.

The larger structural changes that have contributed to a defensive position in the humanities are not anti-intellectual. They are anti-public.  They are devised in such a way to prevent speaking back; to designate anything produced which might call into question technological reason and instrumental logics as illegitimate (art history does not “contribute to society”). At its very core, by pursuing policy choices which instantiate the logic that education adheres to the individual and benefits only that individual who receives a degree or certificate, these larger structural changes seek to deny and obviate publicness. 

For Jürgen Habermas, the public sphere was a space relatively isolated from State and economic interests. In his telling, the public sphere became the forge in which bourgeois class consciousness was made. The key to this class consciousness was the use of reason. But reason itself is predicated on the connection with other rational beings—hence a public sphere is a space for thinking individuals to gather. In our post-bourgeois society, however, the individual has been replaced by what Gilles Deleuze has called the dividual—and capitalism treats people as objects from which to isolate and extract traits and behaviors to be transformed into data. Instead of thinking rational individuals, our so-called society is instead composed of quantified and calculable actions and interactions that are aggregated into “traits” or “characteristics” so that commodities can find us, instead of the other way around. At the same time, we are pressured, through the logics of post-bourgeois capitalism, to no longer think of ourselves as obligated to anyone or anything except our own happiness, our own profit, our own brand, as it were. The public, as such, no longer exists. It is the public that needs saving, not the humanities.

Oscar Negt and Alexander Kluge suggest, in their 1972 book, Public Sphere and Experience, that the public sphere is the space in which experience is organized. In their Marxist terms, experience is expropriated by the bourgeoisie and re-organized as commodities to be sold back to the proletariat. To give an example, the experience of motherhood is transformed into commodity via television shows, how-to columns, and advice websites. The experience of labor—in the service industry, retail, logistics, or manufacturing—is repackaged as so-called reality tv. The option to contemplate, discuss, and change these experiences and thus society is foreclosed. Workers themselves are implicated in the process—as their reception of the appropriated experience as commodity is necessary for the survival of the system. The audience is part of the media cartel. And this is why thinking about the public in terms of audience is problematic, because limiting the public to mere receptors promotes and strengthens the very system of consumer capitalism which impoverished the humanities and the university system in the first place.

In their critique of the public sphere of knowledge Negt and Kluge advocate for many of the attributes of the public humanities I have mentioned here—accessibility, the adoption of new media forms and technologies, a faculty that keeps the non-academic in mind when pursuing research. But Negt and Kluge are also mindful of the way in which public institutions can take on the attributes of private enterprise around them. Keeping knowledge public means guarding against the encroachment of private interests in the public sphere of knowledge; not just addressing those outside of the academy. It means combatting the ideas of privatization—which surround us at every turn—with counterideas. It means fighting the urge to think only in terms of new audiences, solely in terms of accessibility.

Negt and Kluge’s major contribution to public sphere theory is the counterpublic: non-dominant publics that actively produce their own knowledge, arising from their experience, that in turn can be introduced to society at large. Negt and Kluge run through several examples, from the student movements of 1968, to children, to workers, and their ideas were taken up by various activist groups in Europe from the Green Party to feminists. The task of theory, Negt and Kluge suggested, is to identify points of continuity between counterpublics. Humanities scholars have become a counterpublic—not of our own choosing, but due to the increasing pressures of privatization and profit-taking that have turned the university into a quasi-corporation. We should not be seeking to reflect the demands of the dominant ideology back to society—Kahn Academy, Coursera, and TED talks already do that. Instead, we should be thinking of the public humanities as a field of solidarity for human experience. 

About the Author

Stephen Groening is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington and the author of Cinema Beyond Territory: Inflight Entertainment and Atmospheres of Globalization. He has published articles in Film HistoryFilm CriticismNew Media and Society, Visual Studies, and Cultural Critique.