Yesterday I had been invited to speak at a seminar organised by the Forum for Heritage Research, a network sponsored by four Swedish organisations in the field. The headline was “Hope for the Humanities”, and I must admit that I gritted my teeth at the idealist, anti-market and downright unrealistic perspective presented in the invitation copy. Here’s a piece based on what I said at the seminar.
I’m very interested in the humanities, particularly archaeology, which is my profession. But I have no interest in TV game shows, even though I know that they’re extremely popular. Why is that?
A cultural idealist will reply that it’s because I have good taste: historical humanities are inherently and objectively more interesting and worthwhile than TV game shows. But I’m no cultural idealist. I’m a cultural and aesthetic relativist. This means that I acknowledge no objective standards for the evaluation of works of art. There are no definitive aesthetic judgements, there is only reception history. There is no objective way of deciding whether Elvis Presley is better than Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm. It is possible, and in fact rather common, to prefer Lady Gaga to Johann Sebastian Bach. De gustibus non est disputandum.
This means that I can’t say that it would be better if everyone who likes football took up historical humanities instead. Both football and historical humanities are fun and of no practical use. Which one we choose is a matter of individual character and subcultural background.
This is important. We do a lot of what we do because of our subcultural background, which is largely composed of class background. I am a second-generation academic from the middle class. I do middle class things such as reading novels, skiing on the golf course in the winters, writing essays like this and studying historical humanities. If my parents had been workers, then I would most likely have been doing quite different things. And that would have been fine too. One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun.
Know, O prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars – Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west.
Hither came Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
This is by the American author Robert Erwin Howard, writing in 1932. He’s 26 years old and has four years left to live. At age 30, he will kill himself because his mother has died.
Conan the Barbarian, or Aragorn son of Arathorn, or Ronia the Robber’s Daughter all represent something of central importance to the heritage sector and to the humanities in general. At the same time, on the one hand they embody something we must always seek to achieve, that is the wondersome excitement of discovering a fantastic past – and on the other something we must avoid if we are to fill any independent purpose at all, as these characters and the worlds they inhabit are fictional. Historical humanities, excepting the aesthetic disciplines, deal with reality. This is our unique competitive selling point that we must never lose sight of.
“How can humanistic and historical scholarship contribute to a better society?”, asked the seminar’s hosts.
The humanities won’t mend a leaky roof. They won’t put food on the table. They won’t cure polio. They won’t create peace or prosperity. And taxpayers know this perfectly well. For these reasons, I believe that we absolutely cannot market ourselves in terms of any indispensable societally structure-supporting utility. We will only makes fools of ourselves. Because the raison d’être of the historical humanities doesn’t lie in any practical utility, but in their enjoyment potential. In the joy of learning something interesting about the past that is true. In the joy of seeing something for real that has survived since antiquity.
There are those who claim that the historical humanities fill an important purpose in reinforcing democracy. Sometimes their rhetoric suggests that the main task of the humanities is indeed to keep people from becoming Nazis and repeating the Holocaust. To those who claim this ability for our disciplines, I can only say “Show me the evidence”. There is in fact nothing about the humanities that automatically makes its results politically palatable. The non-humanities people I know are equally good liberals as the humanities majors. Actually, the most brown-shirted individual I have ever spoken to was an archaeology post-grad for a while in the 90s.
In the invitation to the seminar, we were warned about “heritage populism without reflection or depth”. But in my experience, many of the taxpayers who fund us actually really want to enjoy the cultural heritage in a populist manner without any great reflection or depth. They understand that Late Medieval murals painter Albertus Pictor and Conan the Barbarian are not the same kind of character. But they consume stories about both for the same reason: for enjoyment’s sake. This means that it’s our job to make humanistic knowledge available on all levels and to meet every member of the audience where they stand. Our task, unlike that of historical novelists, is to tell true stories – that also have to be exciting and fun. Because there really is no practical use to the humanities. And an activity that is neither useful nor fun has no value whatsoever.
“… culture and heritage suffer under a utilitarian economical mode of thought that focuses on which museums, heritages [this probably refers to archaeological sites], interpretations and blogs can attract the most visitors. Such a bestsellerism can give rise to trivialised and unreflected messages.” (from the invitation)
“Does the heritage sector flatten perspectives by presenting the heritage in a simple, measurable and manageable package?” (from the invitation)
This suggests a kind of punk-rock attitude where a defiant humanities scholar says “I’m not gonna provide anything measurable or manageable or trivial or popular!” And sure, that is up to the individual. But if we are to expect a monthly salary from the taxpayers, then I think we will have to accept that they want to be able to measure and manage our product. How else are they supposed to know if it’s worth it to continue paying our salaries? And they want us to produce stuff that, within the realm of solid real-world humanities scholarship, is at least as much fun as a TV game show or Conan the Barbarian.
So, to conclude: if humanities scholars produce stuff that is neither practically useful nor enjoyable, if our output is not only useless but also boring, then there is no hope for the humanities. Then we simply have to starve.