What Value Do the Humanities Have?

Stanley Fish has yet another piece on the value of the humanities. Fish argues that we shouldn’t defend the humanities on any sort of utilitarian argument–that by having students take humanities classes, they will learn how to think, how to write, to become better people, etc.–but rather that we should argue that they have an inherent value in and of themselves. He points out that if we justify the humanities in relation to something else, we are playing by another game’s rules, and we’re not likely to do well by doing so.

While I think Fish is a little too apt to reject any sort of justification of the humanities in the creation of well-rounded humans (perhaps because he’s being a bit elitist himself in his definition of what constitutes the humanities), and while I think he doesn’t actually understand the real value of the digital humanities (something to which I contributed in my dissertation in a chapter titled Introduction to the Fractal Distribution of Words in a Text back in 2004), I do think there is something to his Oakeschottian defense of the humanities. And I think that he would have made an even stronger argument had he understood the spontaneous orders argument underlying Oakeschott’s point.

Science is not justified by its contribution to the creation of technology nor to the improvement of health care. I would go farther and say that science has made almost no contribution to the creation of technology, and has rather come along most of the time to explain the technological advances being made. That’s certainly what happened with the steam engine–the science of thermodynamics was developed to explain the working of the engine; the engine wasn’t invented after we understood thermodynamics. While that may be changing with biotechnology, the overwhelming majority of science throughout the overwhelming majority of the history of science has worked this way. Science is self-justified. We learned why the steam engine works because of curiosity, not to make a steam engine.

The same is true of math. Developments in math have come about because people wanted to solve mathematical problems. That is all. The fact that some math has proven useful to understanding some aspect of the world have been fortunate, but there’s a lot of math out there that has no correlation in the real world.

Math and science are two different spontaneous orders. That is, they are epistemic ecosystems. Mathematical developments are made for their own sake, not for the sake of anything else–not even science. Yet, some of those developments in math have proven useful in understanding the world insofar as they are integrated with science. Equally, scientific investigations are designed to help someone learn something they are curious about, and literally for no other reason. Sometimes those discoveries lead to a practical advancement, but very few people are doing science to make technological breakthroughs. Those who are primarily interested in solving technological problems are working in their own spontaneous order. They may draw on the work of scientists, but often they are doing nothing of the sort.

The humanities–as well as the arts–are similarly epistemic ecosystems. People participate in them not for any “practical” purpose, but because they want to solve some sort of problem, to discover or create new knowledge (or, in the arts, to solve an artistic problem). While it’s theoretically possible for someone like Steve Jobs to take a calligraphy course and be inspired to offer different fonts on his word processor on his computers, I don’t think anyone can truly justify the teaching of calligraphy on the off chance that something like that is ever going to happen.

If we take a broader view of the arts and humanities and include TV and film, visual rhetoric, communications, etc., we can perhaps begin to understand the degree to which the arts and humanities touch literally everyone on earth. Few may read Dante’s Divine Comedy, but reading and understanding it can help one to understand the degree to which those ideas have permeated Western culture and even world culture, permeated our stories and the ways in which we think. That is something which I find worth knowing, but which others may not. And that’s okay. But it should be okay among those who don’t find it personally worthwhile for me to do so. A little less dismissive snobbery from both camps might be in order.

The fact is the humanities help us to understand our social world. Those who enjoy TV and film ought to be among the first to defend the study of works of great literature and the visual arts, because TV and film are always drawing on the past great stories that have lasted for decades, centuries, and even millennia, and they are always drawing on the visuals created over that same period of time. Most of our common cliches were first coined by people like Shakespeare. There are pop songs that directly reference Romeo and Juliet. How many songs in recent years have referenced Nietzsche’s dictum that whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The humanities are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Science is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The free market is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Math is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. Technological innovation is self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. The arts are self-justified as an epistemic ecosystem. So is philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, the social sciences, and any number of other spontaneous orders. They are justified by people simply being interested in doing those things.

Of course, the reason people want to justify what they do is because they need to pay the bills. How do we get people to pay us to do what we love doing? Often we have to argue that there is some value beyond our own interest and the interest of a handful of others. The sciences, the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and math, among others, are luxuries only those with leisure time can dedicate themselves to creating. At the same time, the universality of things like storytelling suggests there is a necessary element to some of these things.

We spend way too much time and energy in storytelling–myth-making, gossiping, reading novels and poems, listening to songs, watching TV, watching movies, etc.–for it to just be a luxury. There has to be some kind of selective advantage for humans to do something so energy-intensive so often. I do believe we need to spend some time and energy learning why this is. Of course, that too is a self-justifying argument. We don’t have to know these things to keep telling and enjoying stories. But we might want to know it for the sake of knowing it–and if knowing that happens to help justify some money being freed up for the humanities, all the better.

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The Cult of Self-Expression

Perhaps nothing has been less fruitful, less artistic, less interesting than the cult of self-expression in the arts. The arts are not and have never been about self-expression. Unfortunately, most people believe that art is almost exclusively about self-expression. But to the extent that an artist or writer believes this, that person is not engaged in an aesthetic enterprise. Their work is anti-artistic, and the degree to which they are engaging in self-expression actually undermines the work as a work of art.

What does it mean to “engage in self-expression”? I’ve seen its most extreme version in creative writing classes with students who would say things like, “I don’t read poetry because I don’t want to be influenced by anyone else in the way I write or what I write about.” The funny thing is that every single poem by every single person who ever said something like this all sounded exactly the same. Somehow, the “self” they were all trying to “express” was identical in nature.

Your pure, unadulterated “self” is pretty much identical to everyone else’s. In other words, you’re not all that interesting or even unique. To become interesting and unique, you have to have experiences with other people, which includes reading a great deal of poetry if you plan to be a poet. Your poetic voice will never emerge by avoiding poetry any more than your actual voice will ever emerge without hearing anyone speak. Your poetic voice can only ever emerge if you immerse yourself in poetry, read poetry obsessively, try to emulate your favorite poets, adopt forms and styles, write in meter and use rhyme, consonance, assonance, and other poetic elements.

The choices forced on you by meter and rhyme, for example, force you to make different choices than what you would have made “naturally.” More often, better and more interesting choices. The choices you would have made without the restrictions of meter and rhyme are your “self-expression,” and most of the time they aren’t as interesting as the forced choices. Now, to what degree can “forced choices” be “self-expression” if they have been imposed from the outside?

If you read about the great artists, you won’t find a lot about their self-expression. What you will find is a great deal about whatever artistic problems they were trying to solve. The Renaissance artists were interested in solving artistic problems around the emergent idea of point perspective. The Impressionists were trying to solve problems with capturing light in different ways. The cubists too were trying to solve artistic problems in trying to capture movement and in trying to render unseen portions as seen in a 2D painting.

Shakespeare wasn’t trying to express himself (thank God!) in his plays, or even in his series of sonnets (there was an artistic problem he was trying to solve in creating a coherent set of sonnets without a narrative holding them together). Shakespeare to varying degrees expressed his society, culture, etc. in his plays, transforming works by Roman playwrights into Elizabethan stories, and sometimes Shakespeare reinforced that world view, and sometimes he challenged that world view, but he always did so through the portrayal of his characters, who spoke with their own voices, who only expressed themselves rather than being avatars for Shakespeare.

Today’s movies are very popular in no small part because the massively collaborative nature of film making makes self-expression nearly impossible. We can always tell when a film has self-expression, because we tend not to like them for being so self-indulgent. And that’s what everyone says about your work when you engage in self-expression: they say that it’s self-indulgent. And self-indulgent work is egotistical and boring.

Of course, much poetry especially is egotistical and boring. Poetry is especially prone to this because there are few market forces working to keep poets honest. Nobody’s paying for poetry anyway, so why not drivel on about your boring self? If nobody is paying, nobody cares, right? But that’s not necessarily true. People are paying–in time. When you write a poem, you are supposed to be trying to communicate with that person. Have you ever had to sit with someone who droned on and on and on about themselves and nothing else? If your poetry reads like that, don’t be surprised if nobody wants to read it. Probably nobody wants to sit with you, either.

I’m certainly not saying I haven’t written poems about myself. I have. Most poets have. But hopefully I’m trying to communicate something to you that goes well beyond self-expression, and in fact has nothing whatsoever to do with self-expression. I’m trying to communicate my experiences in a way that they are universal and universalized in their particularity. My very best poems have been those where I have avoided self-expression entirely. If I have communicated to you beauty, that’s enough. If I have made you think, contemplate, meditate, or want to turn a line or two into a mantra or a koan, all the better. If I have helped you see something you’ve never seen before, or something you have seen before in a new way, I’ve done my job as an artist. But none of those things require self-expression. More, self-expression is the surest way to get in the way of accomplishing these things.

Matt Ridley has recently talked about “ideas having sex.” A true artist’s brain is the bed where these ideas are having sex. For a poet, all of the poems you have read, all of the ideas you have read, all of the facts filling your head are having sex and reproducing in the form of new poems. Your artwork will have the DNA of all the forms, ideas, and so on of everything you have read, experienced, and seen. Self-expression, on the other hand, involves only yourself–and its outcome is sterile and only of interest to the person involved in that self-expression. Art, like sex, is only interesting to others if more than yourself is involved.

The best thing that could happen to the arts would be for everyone to do away with the self-indulgent cult of self-expression. Go out and solve some artistic problems. That’s the one and only way to be any kind of artist at all.

The Euphemism Treadmill

In The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker talks about the use of metaphor in politics, leading him to discussing George Lakoff’s recommendations to the Left on how to come up with metaphors to support their ideology. For example, Lakoff recommends that “taxes” be reframed “as “membership fees” that are necessary to maintain the services and infrastructure of the society to which we belong” (246). Let me suggest why this won’t work by referring you to another of Pinker’s works, The Blank Slate. In it he talks about something he calls the “euphemism treadmill.” That is where “People invent new words for emotionally charged referents, but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations, and so on” (212). He then points out that we went from “water closet” to “toilet” to bathroom” to “restroom” to “lavatory.” He then observes that “The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are primary in people’s minds. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name, at least not for long” (213).

In other words, no matter what name we give taxes, it remains a fact that when you are taxed, that means that someone with more power than you is taking money that you earned and using it for projects that either directly or indirectly benefit them and which my or may not benefit you and which you may or may not agree with, and threatening to do you harm unless you hand over the money. When a private citizen does it, we call it being mugged. It is theft, plain and simple. Calling it a “membership fee” isn’t going to change that. It’s just putting lipstick on a pig.

Critical Positions

First, all criticism must be done with love, can only be done from love. This is true in both arts criticism and critical art – or criticism of any kind. Criticism without love is spite. Those who criticize without loving what they criticize do so out of spite – too often because what they are criticizing is good, and they hate it for that very reason. Their only purpose is to tear down what they criticize. There are, of course, bad things that must be torn down, but one does not criticize these things – one attacks them.

We must criticize the arts or criticize through the arts as a parent criticizes a child (I use the word “criticize” here in the most positive way possible – as loving correction) – with the loving hope of bringing out what we know to be the best that child has to offer. But the child must know it is loved, must feel loved, before it can withstand criticism. Children who know they are loved can take loving criticism and use it to improve himself. Children who are not loved, who do not see the criticism as coming from love, will receive the criticism with resentment – and rightfully so. He will see criticism as something harmful, something meant to tear him down rather than lift him up. This lifting up, this is and should be the goal of all criticism.

My own particular field is literature, and so I shall use it as an example. In choosing a novel to critique, I would – and should – pick a novel I love, while avoiding novels I hate. There is an element of logic here – why would I want to spend more time with a novel I disliked and whose artistry I do not respect? Thus, I would never do a criticism of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I consider to be the single worst novel I have ever read. Instead, I would rather do a criticism of, say, Don DeLillo’s Underworld (to pick another contemporary novelist), which I love immensely and, in my love of it, am able to see both what is good about the novel, as well as what does not quite work, in my opinion. I can do this because I am approaching the novel from a position of love.
Now some may object that a better position is that of neutrality. But neutrality is the same as saying indifference, and you are certainly unable to say anything either positive or negative, or constructive in any way, if you are indifferent. Only someone who loves something or someone will want to take the time and make the effort to critique it. Only someone who loves something or someone will want what is best for it. Even hatred is preferable to indifference – one can gain something from it, if one views such criticism with a cool eye. With hatred, at least some emotion was involved – they cared enough to hate. With indifference, nothing is accomplished – it is the true opposite of love (and love’s twin, hatred).

A good example of a loving critique is the creation of new art in response to the work(s) in question. I would never write a novel in response to Blood Meridian – to do so would be to acknowledge value where, in fact, I find none. But even though I have various philosophical problems with DeLillo’s paranoia, conspiracy-mentality, and apocalyptic world view, all of which I reject, I do consider him worthy of emulating and of responding to artistically and philosophically. I have in fact worked on a novel that does just that – respond to DeLillo (and postmodernism in general) philosophically. Indeed, this novel (which I do need to get back to working on) would have been impossible without my having read Underworld.

So criticism must be done from love. Criticizing from hatred will not work because those being criticized will refuse to listen, meaning it cannot be constructive – and, in the end, what is criticism meant to be if not constructive? Criticizing from hatred will not work because we are blinded by that hatred to whatever value there is in the thing or person in question. And whose who are being critiqued will not listen to anything we have to say, because they know we do not have their best interests at heart. Thus, my position on not doing any criticism of Blood Meridian – lovers of the book will gain nothing from anything I have to say about it. But hopefully lovers of Underworld would be able to read a critique I wrote of it and be able to see it in a new light, uncover new beauties in it that had previously gone unseen, understand what I have a problem with in the book and why, and investigate with me the possible reasons for DeLillo’s choices. They will listen because they know I love the book.

The same is true of children – and of countries. Each must know the one being critical is only doing it out of love and only wants what is best – only wants to lift them up to greater heights, to make them a better person or a better country. Criticism from hatred is only meant to tear down, to destroy, not to build up – and the one who is being criticized knows this, no matter the objections of the one who criticizes from hatred. Everyone, from the time they were a small child, knows the difference. That is why criticism must always be done only from a position of love.

Why We Need More Grace

Albert Loan has written a fantastic Facebook post on Grace, which he gave me permission to post here. I want to share it because it very much goes along with the purpose of this blog.

As time goes on, I increasingly believe that one’s capacity for grace is a high measure of intelligence. It is surprising, however, how little this quality is talked about in educational literature or even in the literature on dialogue, outside of a religious context. For me gracious communication requires the ability to ignore minor irritations, to not be sidetracked by syntactical errors in the search for the semantic meaning, and a conscious effort to maintain the assumption of good will on the part of the other person. Computers cannot do that. They are binary, “yes” or “no” machines, unforgiving, unable to overlook small errors, no tolerance for imprecision, and unable to seek out the truth amidst the error and connect to it. In other words, they are not intelligent. How often are conversations brought to an abrupt stop because someone picks up on a rather irrelevant mistake in logic, insignificant error in fact, or a misuse of grammar. A gracious communicator knows when such a breach is inconsequential to the dialogue’s direction and intent. A brief search for “charitable communication” also turns up nothing. Howard Gardner’s “empathetic” or “existential intelligence” addresses this to some extent, and Marshall Rosenberg shows us technically how to be non-violent in our speech, but grace is something more and something lacking from so much of our personal and public discourse. Some people talk of speaking “gracefully,” but this can almost be the opposite of what I am talking about. Being “graceful” is usually associated with “tact,” which has the implication that there is something wrong about which one should not speak directly. It can imply that the other person lacks the emotional maturity to hear what we would like to say. It implies a lack of transparency, a need to hide one’s true assessment, or the skillful use of ruse. That is not to say that graceful communication or tact is not necessary at times, but an attitude of gracious communication is different; it comes from an attitude of genuine hospitality, a generosity of spirit that instinctively invites someone in, out of the rain, despite their wet clothes.

We all need this kind of grace in our lives, in the way we live our lives, in the way we treat others, and the way we communicate with each other. We are all guilty of failing to exhibit such grace–often quite guilty–but it’s something we should all strive to achieve. It’s a generosity of spirit, a willingness to overlook the small things in order to concentrate on the larger purpose. And no, this is not at all in conflict with what I posted earlier by McElroy on carelessness and the small things. But there is a time and place for  everything.

As Frederick Turner points out in Shakespeare’s 21st Century Economics, grace and mercy are related–both are necessary for justice to exist. To be just with others, you need to exhibit grace and mercy towards them. We are seeing less and less grace and mercy in the world today, all under the guise of increasing justice. But justice without mercy and grace is vicious. And that, too, we are increasingly seeing today. We need a return to grace.

Albert Loan points out that his “own understanding of grace came first from Mary Baker Eddy, then Leonard Read of FEE, then Don Lavoie at GMU, then Maria Montessori, and over the last decade Martin Buber (I and Thou) and Ronald C. Arnett (Communication and Community).” He goes on to say that, “Between Lavoie and Montessori I read a book called “The Habit of Thought,” by Michael Strong. This was key to putting into practice what I had learned previously and it also opened a world of scholarship where I found Buber, Arnett, and a host of other wonderful scholars who value gracious dialogue. As an educator, it changed my life. Having said all this, I’m aware that I still have a lot to learn and that my own communication skills fall far short of those whose example I admire.” And “Also, David Bohm! I knew I was missing someone significant. His “On Dialogue” is a treatise on gracious communication. The ability to “suspend” your judgement while you remain open to the truth being expressed to you is key to achieving a gracious attitude.