by Tenzan Eaghll
Today I read my 500th article on why the humanities are failing. Since I began working in religious studies these articles have been published with abandon, all of them claiming that the humanities are devalued, underfunded, and destined to be fully eclipsed by science, neoliberalism―or some other boogey monster―and all of them suggesting some sort of reasonable solution to this crisis. Now, I do not want to detract from the value of these articles, or to deny the grave threat the academy faces from current austerity practices, but simply want to point out that this threat of obscurity and rejection has always been the horizon of critical theory in the humanities.
In the article I read today the author’s position was that the humanities have been eclipsed by scientific research and that this shadow of oblivion is not necessary. The author points to numerous scientific-like studies produced within the humanities that could revive it in a science driven world, or at least save it from irrelevance. “The humanities,” the author suggests, “are producing very scientifically relevant material,” and this should not be ignored. The article concludes, in a somewhat familiar tone, by calling for humanities scholars to make this evident, and to make their work accessible to the masses by engaging in “more public scholarship.”
What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.
Let’s face facts, as there is no point in denying the obvious, critical theory in the humanities, and the critical wing of religious studies along with it, poses a threat to the status quo. We question assumed hierarchies, gods, capital interests, white privilege, patriarchy, the predominance of mythic structures―basically, all dominant discourses―and as such, we are sidelined.
What is ignored by those who call for us to make our work more accessible, more scientific, to write more simply, or to appeal to the “public” (as if the public was some singular objective domain), is that many of our ideas stand in contrast to the (perceived) status quo, and that regardless of how accessible we make our ideas they will always be ignored by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the apparent order of things.
Moreover, what is often ignored is that the difficulty of critical work is its strength. Ideas from the humanities only take root after decades of assimilation, and even after this they are held at bay and labeled as dangerous, and it is precisely this obscurity and danger that makes the humanities so powerful.
To prove the point, simply think of the struggles faced by many of the literary and philosophical talents that humanities scholars hold in highest esteem. When Kant first published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, barely anyone read it for almost a decade. What is arguably the landmark treatise of the Enlightenment was lambasted as hopelessly complex and filled with unreadable prose by a couple reviewers and then ignored for years. In fact, it is with Kant that the cliché of ‘bad philosophical writing’ began. The same can also be said for all of Nietzsche’s works, as almost no one read his books until after he died and to this day notable critics refer to what is arguably his greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as illegible. Harold Bloom, for instance, one of the humanities own “public scholars,” calls Zarathustra “a gorgeous disaster” and “unreadable.” In the twentieth-century this trend has continued in earnest. When James Joyce first published Ulysses in 1922 it was widely read in secret but met with outrage and disgust in public. To own a copy in Britain and the United states was a criminal offense for many years, and people had to ship it secretly through the mail just to get a copy. Or, to take an even more recent example, think of the opposition Jacques Derrida faced from other members of the academy in the early 1990s. Over 200 Analytic philosophers tried to stop Cambridge university from granting him an Honorary Doctorate in 1992 by suggesting that his philosophy is filled with “tricks and gimmicks.”
My point, of course, is not that the humanities is the domain of secret knowledge or that what we do in critical theory is so incredibly difficult that only a few gifted geniuses can understand it, but simply that we work with new ideas and new language, and new ideas and new language are often ignored and caricatured as illegible and hieroglyphic until they develop a wider audience (which sometimes takes decades). Two-hundred years after Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason the idea that our mental faculties determine our perception of the world is widely accepted across the sciences and popular culture. Similarly, though it is often misused and misunderstood, the term for Derrida’s philosophy, “deconstruction,” has entered the lingua franca of the modern age.
Hence, we don’t need to make the humanities more accessible or to write more simply when working with difficult ideas. In fact, I would suggest that it is precisely the illegibility and obscurity of some of our work that harbors its significance. As Derrida suggested in the wake of his controversial Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University, when you question the rules of the dominant discourse, or try to politicize or democratize the university scene, you are bound to be attacked or ignored. Sometimes this silencing comes from within the academy itself, and sometimes it just seems as if the general public couldn’t give a damn about what we have to say, but it is precisely in this obscurity that some of the most important work in Western literature has been written―so rage on in a fog of oblivion, if you must.
In the coming years, hopefully the austerity that the humanities has faced in the past decades will lessen and we will see increased funding and hirings, but make no mistake, even if this happens the most critical work out there will always be ignored when it first arrives on the scene. For no matter how relevant our work is, the work produced in fields that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant discourses and ideologies will always be undervalued … at least for a time.