humanities, national parks, and conservation

The humanities and national parks have a fair amount in common, perhaps it is just coincidence? The first national park in the US was designated in 1872 (Yellowstone) and then growing to the point where the National Park Service was created in 1917. It's the same period of time that the modern academic humanities emerged as part of the modern nation state. Of course the humanities had been around for centuries, but so had parks, in the form of royal hunting preserves for example. But the modern university like the national park was a democratic initiative with some obligation to the citizen. Also, we might say, in a more polemical way, that the humanities and national parks are both gestures toward conservation in response to an industrialization that presents a threat to nature, art, and culture (or at least a particular version of culture). Like national parks, which identify unique and beautiful places to preserve for citizens to appreciate, the humanities also grow from a tradition of conserving great works for appreciation. Both were designed to perserve something that would be threatened by the capitalist marketplace. And today, national parks are tourism, and the humanities find themselves at least apparently struggling in that marketplace.

The conservation movement that inaugurates the national park movement is today matched by environmentalism and other movements that take a very different view of "nature," including arguments such as Tim Morton's that call us to reject nature as a concept. As Latour has made clear, nature is the invention of the modern state, the twin of culture. If nature makes no sense, then culture makes no sense. And if culture makes no sense then the humanities' conservation of culture makes less than no sense. That doesn't mean the things the humanities studies aren't worth studying. It just means that there is a different reason for studying them than preserving a non-existent culture. As the humanities have moved beyond western civilization, we've made the argument that more objects are worthy of conversation/valuation rather than rejecting that model of culture. The digital humanities model of distant reading allows one to move beyond the conservation model by setting aside the limits of close reading. Of course one could do close reading through random sampling of objects or do a massive crowd-sourced close reading of texts. (Imagine a 1000 English professors each reading 10 unique novel from a certain period to create a crowd-source close reading of 10,000 novels.) For the most part though we remain embedded in a humanities that begins with (aesthetic?) judgments about which objects are worthy of study.

So park rangers are still important. We don't want to give up our national parks, but we cannot confuse conservation with ecology. There's nothing about being a park ranger or otherwise maintaining national parks that is connected to an understanding of environment, climate, etc. The humanities that emerged as part of the modern, national state cannot, in my view, be "reformed" to address this emerging nonmodern view. In my own discipline of rhetoric, the modern, nationalist view imagines an achievable rhetoric of rational, Englighted modern citizens. In the postmodern it tries to correct itself by expanding its view of such a rhetoric to include non-Western, non-patriarchal, non-bourgeois  rhetorics, but it is still involved in park management. Ultimately, it is still trying to conserve some modern hope of what communication might be. 

When rhetoric becomes part of the great outdoors, a minimal rhetoricity underlying all relations productive of thought or action, the modern drive for a particular rhetoric is reframed. Perhaps it is still worthy of saving. Maybe George Washington really is a founding father of America. Maybe Shakespeare is the greatest writer of English literature. Whatever. The point is that the study of humanities operates in a different register, as different as the shift from Newton to Einstein. In a way, the humanities have been going through this for decades. One would think that postmodern theory already signalled that shift. And yet, it didn't. Thirty, forty years after "theory" began to spread through the humanities, things aren't all that different. Whatever changes we might say were wrought by theory had little impact on the objects we choose to study, the curriculum we design, the way we teach, or the activities our students undertake.

Certainly this is true in rhetoric and composition where 30 years of disciplinary research, of an information and communications revolution unprecedented in history, of groundbreaking insights into the understanding of cognition, of millions of dollars of research and experimentation in education, of "postmodern theory," the vast majority of writing pedagogy practice is hardly changed. How can this be called anything but an abject failure? Show me the 2011 composition textbook that indicates that we've actually learned something in the last 20 years?

I single out my own discipline but not because I don't believe the rest of the humanities is equally culpable. And maybe one might argue that the constancy of first-year composition has more to do with ideological and institutional forces than the production of new knowledge. That is, new knowledge is produced but hasn't reached the classroom or the textbook. Fair enough. But I would still argue that we must move beyond the modernist hope of conserving an imaginary culture of civic rhetoric, just as we must move beyond conserving other imaginary cultural objects. 


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