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In Praise of the Real

In Praise of the Real

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 27, 2009


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In Praise of the Real:Reforming the Humanities
Frederick TurnerWe are in the midst of a remarkable surge of interest in the classics: witness the crowds pushinginto Old Master art exhibitions, the craze for serious music, popular TV documentaries on theCivil War and the West, the lines outside Shakespeare and Austen movies, the spread of huge andprofitable bookstores. Mercury, the Roman god of the market, seems to be demanding the goodsthat the humanities have always shyly guarded. But at exactly the same time public support forthe academic humanities is dwindling. Institutions have no divinely appointed claim tocustodianship over the cultural resources they claim. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuriesthe Anglican Church was the automatic destination for Englishmen with literary and intellectualgifts; to "get a place" was the preoccupation of every young poet. Vast multivolume collectionsof calf-bound sermons were ranged in stately bookcases; universities took it as their primefunction to prepare budding clergy for their duties. But by the mid nineteenth century everythinghad changed. In fifty years the Church somehow rendered itself intellectually and culturallyirrelevant; in another fity years the C of E vicar was a laughing-stock; and in fifty more theseemingly endless financial holdings of the Church had evaporated. I fear that the same thing isgoing to happen to the academic humanities. Public support, not power, is what keeps aninstitution vital, as the Soviet Union discovered in the eighties; and public support followswhatever combines the imaginatively exciting with the practically relevant.What does the public want that we are not giving it? I have been canvassing the views of graduate students and ex-graduate students in the humanities--the most discerning and crucialpublic we have--and the diagnosis is gloomy. The problem is not fundamentally the lack of jobsin the profession; humanities graduates now have no illusions on that score. Students enter thehumanities because of love: love for books, for the search for truth, for the play of theimagination, for the serenity of spiritual goodness. What they often encounter is precisely whatthey made huge sacrifices to escape: a contempt for books, a total disregard of the the truth, anideological suspicion of the creativc imagination, and an institutionally approved culture of politics, factionalism, grievance, opportunism, and cynicism. Many of the best humanitiesgraduates have left the field or adopted corrupting modes of lip-service to their poststructuralistprofessors. Who can blame them, when Management and Business Administration aresometimes more humane and more realistic, and have a better sense of humor?
Of course I am describing things at their worst; I am constantly amazed by the splendid scholars,the live minds, and excellent human beings that I meet in the profession. But a visit to an MLAannual conference will quickly convince any doubter that the humanities are in deep trouble, andthat there is a need for those who love them to figure out where we went wrong, restructure manyof our presuppositions, and justify our claim to guard and interpret the enormous riches of theworld's cultural heritage.How we got here is not that important, and in any case is becoming fairly clear. Intellectually thereduction of meaning to structure urged by the New Critics and Structuralists diminished worksof art to mere texts, orphaned of author and referent, and fatally vulnerable to the corrosive acidsof deconstruction. In their fragmented and relativistic state texts could now be interpreted onlyin terms of the interests of the regime under which they formed themselves. These developmentscoincided with the theories of speech acts, performatives, and language games in semiotics,which in turn linked up with the idea of the closed hermeneutic circle to cut language off altogether from any putative real world, and thus to isolate any discourse from the possibility of outside criticism. We were confined to the episteme, the regime of power and knowledge, inwhich we were programmed. But knowledge itself, declared the likes of Paul Feyerabend, was just a reflection of the political interests of scientists and scholars. Power, in fact, became theonly reality in the humanities.Now power is also the central idea of the scientific discipline of dynamics. For theEnlightenment and the Industrial Revolution science was the realm of cause; force was the waythat cause operated, and power was what exerted the force. Cause was deterministic and one-way; in theory, a calculator--such as the Laplace Calculator, an ideal prediction machineprogrammed with the positions and momenta of all particles in the universe--could predict everyfuture event, including all human actions and thoughts. The humanities were instituted at theinstigation of such thinkers as Kant and Schiller, seeking to preserve a space for the discussion of the uncaused, unpredictable, and free--for the playful, the aesthetic and the moral.But since that time science has undergone a profound revolution. Though indeed dynamics--andits statistical and time-dependent version, thermodynamics--still hold in isolated locations, theyare now seen as idealizations only partly fulfilled in a real universe that is fundamentallyunpredictable and free. Cause is now only one of a number of types of connection betweenevents, including quantum coherence and statistical wave harmonics, far-from equilibriumthermodynamic catastrophes, nonlinear bifurcation, evolutionary emergence, and self-organization within strange attractors. The world according to scientists is no longer one of deterministic one-way power, in which A forces B to become C at the thermodynamic cost of Dunits of loss to friction and E units of entropic decay. It is becoming one much more like therealm of the traditional arts, of creative growth and emergence, of organically shifting frames of 
reference, of evolutionary development, mutual influence, and continuous retrospectivelyintelligible but prospectively surprising change.Ironically, then, the sciences and the humanities have changed places. The humanities nowprofess a scientifically obsolete view of events, a power-based account of the world which is asincompatible with the values of human culture as Kant rightly declared the Newtonian universeto be. It might seem madness for untrained academics, without numbers, industrial base, orweapons of war, to invite combat in the opposition's own terms with the great armed potentatesof the world, but this is what the humanistic academy has done; it is like a Pekinese barking outof a window at a cement truck. But this is where the "logic of the humanities," in Cassirer'sphrase, has got us. Meanwhile the sciences, with their rigorous research methods, and beginningwith presuppositions just as linear and deterministic as they were accused by the humanities of being, have disclosed to us a universe full of freedom and creativity, fertile ground for art andmoral action. For the humanities this reversal is tragic, however understandable the route bywhich it was reached. If there is a moral it is that we should not have lost faith so soon in thepower of human reason and experiment when corrigible by free criticism.But it is too late now to be drawing morals, and who are we to judge the grand humanisticsavants of the nineteenth century? The task now before us is to rescue what we can from over acentury of largely misguided theory--and thus partly tainted research--in the humanities, and putthe field on a sound footing; so that we can bequeath to the future public an institution in bettershape than we found it.Let us admit openly, then, that our field is in trouble, and that its chief problem is a loss of contact with reality. We are a nation of laws; as citizens we subscribe to the legal system.Reality is legally defined as what is scientifically verifiable; hence we teach evolution in high-school biology, not scientific creationism. The humanities, however, are now teaching that realityis entirely relative to the culture and gender of the knower; our humanist professors are thus as farremoved from fact as the most "biblical literalist" sect. That loss of contact with reality is also aloss of contact with the public--a failure to perform the mandate, bought and paid for fair andsquare by the people of our states and nation, of educating and civilizing the young, and acting asthe repository and conduit of the cultural heritage. If we wish to do something else, we shouldnot take the public's money, and it is actually dishonest and immoral to do so. In the process wehave suffered a decay of standards and of the empirical and logical canons of scholarly proof; theaverage MLA paper is a tissue of non-sequiturs and assumptions of what it wishes to prove.I propose that we refound the humanities on the sciences. There are various routes by which wemight recover the connection. The first is the anthropological path, retracing the roots of humanarts and other activities through the oral tradition, folklore, cross-cultural anthropology,

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