New Literary History 36.1 (2005) 131-139
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Slow and Brilliant:

Reactions to Geoffrey Galt Harpham's Diagnosis of the Humanities Today

Stanford University

Given his intellectual stature and visibility, given also that sometimes, and on a merely visceral level, I can still perceive in me some mild aftershocks from the rebellious spirit of 1968, I felt almost guilty at first for being so much in agreement with Geoffrey Harpham's conception of the humanities. Upon reflection, however, I understand that his argument honors enough of the grand academic tradition to which we belong and appears open enough for the contemporary situation to suit both my conservative and my presentist tastes. In particular, I appreciate Harpham's insistence on the humanities being a space "of contemplation and reflection," for I trust that this phrase is meant to include the connotation of "contemplation" as an exercise and an island of slowness within the pace of today's everyday life. In other words: I hope that Harpham is claiming an entitlement "to take our time" for something that has no certain practical yield. Likewise, I assume and I wish that the word "reflection" is not supposed to entail the expectation for the possible results of our reflection to be categorically "superior" or of any guaranteed everyday value. Old-fashioned as this may sound, I hope that Harpham is making a pledge in favor of reflection "for reflection's sake."

Now, while I already felt a profound agreement with his description of possible functions for the humanities at large, his more specific observation about the asymmetrical importance of the concept "humanities" for our self-reference on the one hand and for our outside perception on the other was a true eye-opener. Yes, indeed, how we shape the concept of the humanities will continue to be so enormously important for how our profession is being perceived in the public sphere that we can no longer afford that flippant gesture of not caring about a programmatic concept just because it is programmatic (and therefore suspect for being "totalizing"). Finally, I found refreshing and beautifully poisonous Harpham's remark that our teaching should not be focused on entertaining students with our very private self-doubts. I only wish he had [End Page 131] added that it should not be about boring them with the display of our very best political intentions either.

So I had better admit that, despite my 1968 legacy, Harpham and I would not have much of a debate about the goals and functions that we set for the humanities. Rather—and almost exclusively—we might disagree on some of the ways and attitudes through which we believe these goals can be achieved. While this—a debate about divergent ways of achieving identical goals—can appear quite undramatic at first glance, the appearance may be deceptive. For not only are the goals that we set for the humanities always and perhaps necessarily quite vague. They may also be secondary in comparison to the approaches that we choose. This, by the way, is not only the case in the humanities. There are many types of actions and behaviors—we could call them "performative"—for which what we do in order to reach a goal is more important than reaching the goal in and of itself. The process of working through a complex literary text for example—as an amateur reader or as a professional reader—is normally more important than what we positively "learn" from the text. From this angle, I come to the—preliminary—conclusion that the disagreements I felt in going through Harpham's argument may not be completely marginal or even banal. But I will have to leave this to Harpham's, and to our readers', judgment anyway. For my part, I counted seven such points of disagreement (of very different weight), and I will now begin to describe them as succinctly as possible.


About my first point I imagine we could quickly agree. It refers to the compact formula with which, early in his essay, Harpham characterizes a possible general function for the humanities: "The scholarly study of documents and artifacts produced by human beings in the past enables us to see the world from different points of view so that we may better understand ourselves." I pledge that the reference should be not only to "artifacts produced by human beings in the past" but also to artifacts produced in cultures other than our own. This addition would not change the structure of the self-reflection at which Harpham aims—although it is not (at least not only) for reasons of political correctness that I propose such a modification. In the first place, it is simply true that an experience with cultures that are not Western—albeit contemporaneous with ours—can give more profile to our own perceptions of our own cultures. To understand, for example, that those effects and impressions that we call "aesthetic" can appear absolutely everywhere and at any time [End Page 132] within Japanese culture changes our perception of what we refer to as "aesthetic autonomy" within Western culture. We begin to understand that "aesthetic autonomy" it is not a necessary condition of what we call "aesthetic effects." But opening the scope of Harpham's statement for cultural (and not only for historical) otherness also changes the reference of the word "ourselves" in his sentence. As long as the only otherness to which it refers is the otherness of the past, the word "ourselves" will include all humans living in the same present with us. As soon as it presupposes two different dimensions of otherness, however, as in historical otherness and cultural otherness, the word "ourselves" will cover, rather, specific individual cultures within our time. But as I believe that Harpham is tacitly implying these two dimensions of cultural otherness already and as I don't want to look like a hairsplitter, I will not pursue this point any further.


As I cannot help agreeing with Harpham's insistence on the necessity, for us humanists, to return to a closer disciplinary focus in our daily work, I might as well name the historical move (a move away from a traditional form of academic practice) that makes such a return to our disciplines an important issue today. This has been, quite obviously, the so-called cultural turn within literary studies, as the (meta)discipline that counts by far the largest numbers of scholars and students within the humanities—and the cultural turn had been preceded, for several decades, by the historical opening of literary studies towards film studies and media studies at large. If it was problematic to assume that some professional experience in analyzing texts was necessarily a sufficient basis for analyzing films and media, the much more comprehensive self-entitlement that came with the cultural turn has indeed given license to an unheard-of amount of unqualified academic work in the humanities, work that barely disguises its intellectual misery, with excuses as lame as that of being "politically pertinent" or simply "exciting." It is unfortunately true that, for many books written in the humanities during the past decade, the authors' competence does not go beyond the limits of common sense and general culture.

But despite all the obvious reasons for penitence and contrition here, this embarrassment—which has made the humanities a laughing stock for every cultivated nonhumanist—should not lead to the radical exclusion of any interdisciplinary opening within our work. The one question that Harpham is not asking—and should probably have asked—is where exactly we should draw the limit (or, rather, the [End Page 133] different limits) between legitimate and problematic interdisciplinarity. One simple—although somehow draconian-sounding—proposal would be to return to narrow definitions of competence in all those situations where thresholds of professional qualification (tenure) or first book publications are concerned. More interesting would be a discussion about redefining—and redefining seems unavoidable here—what we may legitimately consider to be illegitimate interdisciplinary transgressions. Is it really problematic if a specialist in medieval French literature comments on medieval texts in Middle High German? Should one not expect that any humanist is able to refer competently to certain basic arguments within the canon of the great philosophical works in the Western tradition? And is it not a risk that should be encouraged and rewarded if a humanist, today, responds to the impression that, after more than a century of drifting apart, the humanities and the sciences begin to discover certain epistemological affinities? Perhaps the one truly problematic vector of interdisciplinary self-entitlement has been less in the "inter-" ("between the disciplines") than in the "beyond" (going beyond the limit of statements that can be made with an authoritative claim at all). There is a certain tone of "cultural criticism," for example, and there are certain (implicit or explicit) normative claims in what many humanists want to say about ethical or political problems, that I find much more problematic than a professor of philosophy analyzing a Renaissance sonnet or an art historian using Kant's Critique of Judgment. Above all, humanists should refrain from their notorious desire to give general advice to humankind. Nobody listens to it anyway. But I begin to get into a somehow legislating tone myself. Enough is said if, after expressing my general agreement with Harpham's call for a return to a stricter disciplinary focus, I have made it clear that, perhaps, we do not yet sufficiently know which "interdisciplinary" claims in specific we should avoid within that clearer disciplinary focus of the future.


I very much enjoyed the several instances where Harpham seems to associate both the book as a medium and reading, the obvious core activity of the humanities, with a "stubborn" attitude of "slowness." But it is for the very same reason that I strongly disagree with his identification of the humanities as an intellectual dimension that necessarily and unavoidably transforms its objects into texts (in other words: as an intellectual dimension for which "reading" is the exclusive intellectual operation). As this is my one point of serious divergence, I will take some more space to explain where I am coming from. [End Page 134]

My fondness for symptoms and effects of cultural slowness has to do with the conviction that the humanities (despite their German name of Geisteswissenschaften [sciences of the spirit]) could function today as an antidote to the practical Cartesianism that has shaped our everyday lives—especially our professional everyday lives—into a purely mind-based and time-measured form of living (within which our existential inscription into space, the relationship between our senses and the things of the world, as well as the inertia of our bodies, have lost all importance). All that seems to matter is the exchange of information and the speed with which this exchange takes place. Against such a tendency—and very much, I believe, in the spirit of Harpham's insistence on the slowness of reading—I have described reading, in particular the reading of literature, not as a sheer pleasure but as an oscillation between moments of pleasure and moments of pain. For without those textual difficulties that puzzle us and slow down our reading, we would probably not engage in the effort to imagine worlds that we have never experienced before. Now, if we conceive of the humanities as counterbalance to a life that has become completely absorbed by abstract information and speed, then, perhaps, reading and the attribution of meaning, at least under present-day circumstances, should be considered to be only one of two sides that make up the humanities. The other side would be a constant insistence on "presence," in the sense of that spatial closeness, of that tangibility of the world of objects that our everyday Cartesianism has a tendency of crossing out. It indeed could become a task for the humanities to insist—against the absolute dominance of information and speed—on the presence dimension of the world and of its phenomena. This proposal does not only apply to the ways in which we, the humanists, deal with our objects when we describe and analyze them—it also refers to our style of teaching. We should be the ones who profess (not only the tangibility of the world but also) how pleasant it is to discuss in a group sitting around a table (for we have more need and reason to do so than, say, instructors in the Medical School or in the School of Engineering); we should say how it matters to listen to a great teacher lecturing instead of just reading her or him. We should cultivate that slowness of a life in real presence instead of just further speeding up the flow of information.

Our greatest danger today may be that we yield too large a proportion of our professional world to the bare exchange of information through electronic media. Given how much more expensive it is, in comparison to distance learning, when a teacher is allowed to assemble a small group of students around a table, and given that we do not even exactly know (that is, that we cannot empirically describe) why teaching and learning in a face-to-face-situation feel so much more comfortable and [End Page 135] intense (at least to some of us), these privileges may soon become absorbed by distance learning.


While it may look tautological to underscore, as Harpham does, that the humanities should consider the concept of being "human" as a central—perhaps even the central—point of reference for their work, his point is important simply because it tends to be overlooked. But if I understand correctly his account of a certain debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault on this very issue, Harpham recommends we restrict the range of viable notions, images, and arguments to those which carry the warm and familiar connotations of the western Enlightenment tradition. He prefers Chomsky's insistence on "justice" over Foucault's fascination with "power" and the "machine-like" effects of human life. Here I disagree, once again—but this time for reasons of principle. For I believe that the humanities should indeed use their (relative) freedom—that is, the freedom of the academic "ivory tower"—to make the effort of cultivating counterintuitive thinking. Counterintuitive thinking, I argue, has a chance of acquiring the status and the merit of riskful thinking, because it can engage in thought experiments whose uncertain outcome has the potential for innovation.

As we know from devastating historical experience in the twentieth century, we live better lives as long as our politicians and judges do not claim that their actions are based on new concepts of what it means to be human. But this makes it all the more important that there be one institutional context, at least, where—in isolation from immediate practical consequences—such thought experiments can be undertaken. For it is obvious that, in a larger historical perspective, key concepts of our self-understanding have undergone profound transformations and that these transformations have been for the better. So instead of ruling out a counterintuitive style of thinking, I feel that those humanists who never leave the dimension of the commonsensical (however far they may push the complexity of the commonsensical) are missing the single most important opportunity that society offers to them.


Following a point that Chomsky made in his discussion with Foucault, Harpham highlights how "human behavior and expression are bottomless in their depth" and how, therefore, "humanistic study produces not [End Page 136] certain but uncertain knowledge, knowledge that solicits its own revision in an endless process of refutation, contestation, and modification." My perhaps naïve question is whether the endlessness of revision, that is, the endlessness of the process of interpretation, should indeed be seen as a necessary consequence of the uncertain status of the knowledge that we produce. Could one not imagine that, under specific (but not necessarily exceptional) circumstances, the uncertainty of the knowledge we produce would oblige us to end—to end willfully—certain processes of interpretation? I have a famous and relatively recent statement in mind here. In one of the debates about his film Shoa, the French director Claude Lanzmann quite vehemently rejected the assumption that the film was meant to make a contribution to the "understanding" of the Holocaust. Understanding, he argued, inevitably entails an attitude of forgiving—and such forgiving must not be offered to those who invented and practiced the industrialization of murder. The memory of what happened should be kept alive forever—but understanding should end. Needless to say, there are glorious cases—all those authors and texts that we refer to as "classics," for example—where we can and should indulge in the endlessness of understanding. This is the way in which the reading of Plato's philosophy, for example, has become a mirror of cultural and intellectual identity for many subsequent generations. But the multiplicity of such histories does not contradict my quest that humanists should always ask whether they really want to engage in the endlessness of understanding—or decide against this possibility.


My final two points are more idiosyncratic or, to use even stronger language, they are clearly uncalled-for. Uncalled-for in the sense that they do not have any points of reference in Harpham's programmatic text. From two very different perspectives, they both refer to the future of our academic practice and they both opt for a break with certain legacies from our discursive and institutional history. Over the past decade or so, I have been increasingly obsessed with the impression that the Enlightenment obligation of being "critical" has become so one-sided and has grown so out of proportion that it has developed the effect of a straightjacket. For the fear of being (or, at least, of looking) "affirmative," many humanists have forbidden themselves to ever talk with unmitigated enthusiasm about the texts or the artworks on which they work. As a consequence, we can observe an atrophy of our ability to speak and to write in the epideictic genres. But the underlying double equation of "the more negative the more critical" and "the more critical [End Page 137] the more intellectually deserving" is based on a misunderstanding. For the Enlightenment obligation of being critical was an exhortation never to forego the right to make a judgment of one's own. But it by no means implied a bias towards negative judgments—not even, I believe, a bias towards a language of dry sobriety. After all, it was Denis Diderot, one of the great philosophes of the eighteenth century, who invented the critique du coeur and whose encomiastic words, for us, have become something between embarrassing and hard to bear. So should we not accept, from time to time at least, the risk of looking and sounding all too enthusiastic (at least to some of our fellow humanists)? Do we not owe this courage to the texts and the artworks in the interest of whose survival and continued presence institutions (and our students' families) finance our own survival?


Talking of "survival," I think it would make a positive difference to admit, once and for ever and officially from the humanities' side, that humankind and the existing societies would most likely live on without our work. I have already tried to explain how I believe that the humanities, above all through the cultivation of counterintuitive thinking, can play an important role in present-day societies. But different from many other academic disciplines—think of medicine, engineering, jurisprudence, and most likely even economics—which are at least partly dedicated to the transmission of stocks of practical knowledge without which contemporary societies indeed could not (or only barely) survive, it would not be immediately precarious if teaching within philosophy, history, or literary criticism suddenly stopped. Once again, I insist that this is no reason to abandon the academic tradition of the humanities. But it does mean that there is absolutely no place for teaching in the humanities that is intellectually mediocre—whereas even mediocre teaching in medicine, in law, or in engineering can claim its practical justification (however deplorable it may turn out). This comparison should put specific pressure on the humanists and their institutions, a pressure that many humanists may fear and therefore dismiss as "elitist." But the threat of such an accusation should not blind us to the claim that teaching and writing in the humanities only has a right to exist if it is brilliant, if it makes a true difference by making the arguments, texts, and artworks to which it refers look even more glorious and desirable. Perhaps we have been too concerned, during the past half century, with institutional expansion, with providing jobs for so many generations of our students. While providing employment to intelligent young people [End Page 138] is a more-than-worthy goal, we may have done ourselves—and even them—a disservice in the long run. Are there not too many humanists writing and teaching today who make look boring and superfluous whatever glorious materials and problems the humanities have to offer? Could less—fewer departments, teachers, books of "secondary literature," assigned courses—on a higher level of intellectual quality not be more?

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht is the Albert Guérard Professor of Literature at Stanford University. Among his books on literary theory and literary and cultural history are Eine Geschichte der spanischen Literatur (1990; Spanish translation forthcoming); Making Sense in Life and Literature (1992); In 1926—Living at the Edge of Time (1998); Corpo e forma (2001); Vom Leben und Sterben des groβen Romanisten (2002), The Powers of Philology (2003), and Production of Presence (2004), and In Praise of Athletic Beauty (forthcoming). He is a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Professeur Attaché au Collège de France, and has been a Visiting Professor at numerous universities on several continents, most recently at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa.