In a recent piece in the Chronicle, titled "Diminishing Returns in Humanities Research," Mark Bauerlein identifies "a situation that should
have been recognized at the time:
Vast areas of the humanities had
reached a saturation point. Hundreds of literary works have undergone
introduction, summation, and analysis many times over. Hamlet
alone received 1,824 items of attention from 1950 to 1985, and then
2,406 from 1986 to 2008. What else was to be said? Defenders of the
endeavor may claim that innovations in literary studies like
ecocriticism and trauma theory have compelled reinterpretations of
works, but while the advent of, say, queer theory opened the works to
new insights, such developments don't come close to justifying the
degree of productivity that followed. Also, the rapid succession of
theories, the Next Big Thing, and the Next … evoked the weary
impression that it was all a professional game, a means of finding
something more to say.
Bauerlein makes what I think is a keen observation in his recognition of the shift in literary studies where "By the late 1980s, though, the question "What does it mean?" lost out
to "How can we read it?" The interpretation didn't have to be right. It
had to be nimble." Make of this what you may. In my view, the shift was an inevitable and important maturation of literary studies. Perhaps it was also necessary in opening new avenues for new faculty in terms of research, as Bauerlein points out. However I also think he's right in terms of the problem of diminishing returns.
So what do we make of this argument? Do we accept that premise that at some point, barring the appearance of a significant new body of objects to study and/or radical new methods, that the traditional enterprises of humanities research should be considered complete? If we accept the premise, we then have to ask if we believe we are at or near that point.
I won't answer that question for literary studies. I'll leave that to Bauerlein and others. Bauerlein suggests a switch "toward research into teaching and even more toward classroom and curricular initiatives." Speaking from the perspective of rhet/comp, I'd have to say we've had mixed results with that approach. But certainly that's one area to address. For myself, I would say there are plenty of avenues of research in terms of media networked communication, as well as workplace writing. The challenge is not finding objects to study. There may be some question in terms of methods. But I think the real challenge for us is developing a suitable discourse to take our research and communicate it beyond our immediate scholarly community. I
So I have to say that I think Bauerlein makes a reasonable argument here. There is reason to ask if the humanities are reaching a saturation point where a paradigm shift is important.