On the Humanities, in Theory

The conversation about David Weddle’s anti-film theory screed has continued over at the chutry experiment, and Jason and Anne‘s comments, as well as Chuck’s response, have prompted me to think a bit about the role of “theory” in contemporary humanities scholarship and teaching, and whether that relationship needs rethinking.

One of the things that frustrates me — both about the at times unnecessary obfuscation in much contemporary critical work and about the dismissive responses of mainstream writers to that kind of difficulty — is that both point to (at least if I’m thinking through this clearly, after an insufficient quantity of caffeine this morning) the same phenomenon: the devaluation of the humanities within the academic economy.

The blind adherence to “theory” (and let me here disclaim: I consider myself to be a theoretical adherent, though hopefully not a blind one, and not one who has sacrificed a readable style to a theoretically correct vocabulary) has in part been produced, I think, by a need within the humanities to demonstrate our curricular and scholarly value by proving our “rigor.” This need for rigor, for precision, for difficulty, is driven by the necessity, in the contemporary academic universe, of competing with the sciences, both for funding and for students. Thus we wind up with a deep concern for methodology and much less concern for the interpretations that such methodologies are, one assumes, intended to produce. All of this, I think, is meant to keep administrators and students from mistakenly believing that literature and art and the other humanities are “pleasure” courses, meant to fill in the gaps in an otherwise science- and social science-driven curriculum.

The same devaluation of the humanities, I think, is paradoxically operative in the mainstream dismissals of all such attempts at rigor in said humanities; as we repeatedly point out, no one in the mainstream media writes or speaks so dismissively of even the most abstruse work done in the sciences. Even the most odd pockets of theoretical physics rarely receive anything but awed responses in the press, as there’s an assumption that (a) folks in the sciences take reality, rather than representations, as the basis for their work, and (b) such work, however bizarre-seeming, is aimed at the improvement of human existence. The idea of “research” in the humanities presents itself as nothing but bizarre to the mainstream, who seem to want courses on literature, art, and film to be about one of two things: either “appreciation” or production. Otherwise, (a) you’re reading too much into something that’s just a novel/painting/film, and (b) what’s the point?


  1. Yes, frustrating, isn’t it? It seems to me that our [Western] focus has shifted from wanting to understand ourselves to arrogantly believing that we mostly have understood ourselves, and wanting primarily to understand the world. We need both, of course, but I think it’s actually the humanities that will more readily acknowledge that we cannot understand one without the other, and must study both together, intertwined.

    But we don’t study both together, we study the sciences and appreciate literature, and are getting closer and closer to destroying our world and ourselves.

  2. Good points, although I’d add that social science suffers just as much from these pressures to be rigorous (hence social “science”), though in different ways: over-reliance on statistics, for example. Stanislav Andreski’s Social Sciences as Sorcery is an excellent read on that; published in the ‘70s and still highly relevant.

    If you’re looking for evidence in support of humanities research, you could do worse than look at a report I, ahem, worked on in an editorial/support capacity in 1996-97:


    or in PDF here:




  3. I think that’s absolutely true, Rory — the social sciences have suffered under the same pressures to be “rigorous” (which seems to be translated as “empirical”), and in certain ways did so first, when the humanities were given some kind of moral “out” from such considerations. I think, though, that the turn from social “studies” to social “sciences” has only added to the positivist sentiment of the academy overall — real knowledge is produced scientifically — thus calling attention to the apparent divide between the humanists and everyone else.

    Thanks for the links; I’ll look forward to reading the report.

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