Higher Education

gravity's rhetoric and the value of the humanities

I attended a talk today at UB by Michael Bérubé on “The value and values of the humanities.” Without rehearsing the entirety of his argument, the main theme regarded how the notion of the human gets defined and struggles in the humanities over universal values. So while we largely critique the idea of universalism, we also seek to expand notions of humans and human rights in universal ways (in particular the talk focused on queer theory and disability studies, but one could go many ways with that), though even that encounters some limits (as when people raise concerns over whether Western values about equality should be fostered in non-Western cultures). The talk is part of a larger conference on the role of the humanities in the university and part of Bérubé’s point is that the intellectual project of the humanities, which he characterized as this ongoing, perhaps never-ending, struggle over humanness, continues to be a vibrant project and should not be confused with whatever economic, institutional, bureaucratic, political crisis is happening with the humanities in higher education.

I don’t disagree with him on these points, but my concerns run at a tangent to his claims.  I think we can accept the enduring value of the humanities project as this ongoing struggle with Enlightenment and modernity. (I.e. we value justice, freedom, equality, rationality, etc. but we can’t really manage to figure those things out.) But, for me, this has little to do with valuing the particular ways that this project is undertaken or the scope of the project. That is, one can completely share in this project and still argue that many of the disciplines that comprise the humanities are unnecessary or at least do not require as many faculty as they currently have.  So in the 19th century we didn’t really have literary studies. We had it in spades in 20th century (literature departments were almost always the largest departments in the humanities and perhaps across the campus). In the 21st century? Well, we’ll see I guess. But those ups and downs would really have nothing to do with the value of this general humanities project. Because, in the end, the argument for or against the importance of literary study in the pursuit of this project has to be made separately. And the same would be true of any humanities discipline.

In fact, it’s not only true of every discipline, it is also true of every theory, method, genre, course, pedagogy, and so on. It does not necessarily mean that we as humanists should continue writing what we write, teaching what we teach, or studying what we study or that such practices should be propagated to a new generation of students and scholars. It doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t, either.

In the discussion following, Bérubé made an observation that anything with which humans interact could be fair game for humanistic study. I think his point of reference was fracking, but I started thinking about gravity, which obviously we all interact with. I also sometimes think about gravity when I think about nonhuman rhetoric as a force and how far it extends. If Timothy Morton is willing to argue that the “aesthetic dimension is the causal dimension,” than might one substitute rhetoric for aesthetic. That is, are all forces rhetorical? Or barring that, might any force have a rhetorical capacity? So, gravity.

Here’s the argument I came up with for saying gravity is rhetorical. Every living thing on Earth evolved under a common and consistent gravitational force. Obviously we didn’t all end up the same because gravity was just one of many pressures on evolution. But clearly our skeletal and muscular structure are partly an expression of our encounter with gravity. This is true not only in evolutionary or species terms but individual ones as well. If I grew up on the Moon then I would look different than I do (as any reader of sci fi knows). It was Michael Jordan’s relationship to gravity that made him so amazing, and we might say the same of dancers, acrobats, and so on. One might proceed to speak about architecture’s aesthetics in gravitational terms. Anyway, I think you get the idea. It might be possible to speak of gravity as an expression, not simply as a constant predictable force, but as an indeterminate force productive of a wide range of capacities that cannot be codified in a law. So while I don’t think I would want to argue that gravity is inherently rhetorical, that the Moon’s orbit of the Earth is rhetorical. I might argue that rhetorical capacities can emerge in gravitational relations.

Maybe you don’t want to accept that argument. Most humanists would not because the humanities, in the end, are more defined by their objects of study, their methods, and their genres than by these larger, more abstract questions of value. That is, no history or English department is going to organize itself in terms of curriculum or faculty around these questions of value. They organize around geographic regions and historical periods. We don’t hire people to study questions of value, we hire them to study particular literary periods or apply specific methods.  We place highly constrained expectations on the results of those studies as well in the production of highly technical genres–the article, the monograph, etc.

So perhaps these broader questions act as a kind of gravitational force on the humanities both drawing the disciplines together and shaping the particular expressions and capacities they reflect, but if so then that only points to the contingent qualities of those disciplines. In addition clearly other forces shaped the particular forms humanities study has taken in the US–from massive shifts like nationalism and industrialization to policies regarding the building of universities (e.g. the Morrill Act or the GI Bill) or demographic shifts in US population. And, of course, I should forget technologies.

I don’t think Bérubé would disagree with any of that, so in the end I guess I’m left thinking that the value of the humanities really tells us very little of its future.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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