The Death of Humanities?

by Itai Farhi, ’14

“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.”
-Everyone’s Favorite Reactionary and Epigrapharian (T.S. Eliot)

I am sitting in a comparative literature class at one of the top universities in the world. We are discussing ethnic difference, identity and culture as they get expressed through narratives. Sounds great right? A bunch of well-meaning, open, tolerant people, coming together to try to track how today, Worlds are (No Longer) Apart.

A specter is haunting this class, both terrifyingly friendly and a friendly terror: neo-liberal bourgeois humanism.

As though operating on a script, we all question our own authority as we share our personal experiences, search for “authentic” expressions of cultures coming together (while dutifully challenging the concept of authenticity). Truth claims are reduced to personal narratives. In case there is any doubt, the 60’s are over; the personal is no longer political, the personal has become academic.

Welcome to the death of the humanities.

What did it in? Blame is everywhere. A fashionable answer would single out the “French intellectuals” and the plague of jargon-wielding fashionable “radicals” who reacted like catnip to the seemingly subversive project of systematically undermining (making “interventions” in) the cultural fabric. “The canon” becomes the rallying banner against this trend claiming to assimilate the methodologies of post-modern while dropping the “anti-intellectual” detritus. In this story, the humanities will avoid immolation by redeeming itself through a kind of rediscovery of the classics.

This choice should leave us feeling cheated.

Our approach here should treat the terms of this discussion as a natural outgrowth of the Fukuyaman “End of History”. In case there is any doubt that we have fundamentally accepted the rules of the game as laid down by Capital, the constant presence of the apocalypse in the popular imagination displaces, with an almost stunningly naïve mystification, the discontent with the current situation into a destruction of modern society wholesale. In Zizek’s striking formulation, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” We sense that we are entering a new world-historical epoch. Late capitalism is bursting at the seams.

Our question now is a truly radical one: what kinds of intellectual methodologies will help explain this brave new world to us after the institutional failure of the academic post-modern humanities?

I think that part of the answer is emerging under the aegis of “distant reading”, developing fundamentally new ways of reading and thinking about texts based not on intuitive, impressionistic affect, and instead using the grease for the wheels of post-Fordist “information economies”, data, against it.

This is one answer, and it has much to recommend it. Our job, though, is to allow for the blooming of hundreds, thousands of new flowers. Faced with the dying humanities, we should not be content to let it go with a whimper.


Itai is a sophomore at Stanford studying Philosophy and Literature. He was born in Israel, and lived there until he moved to Bethesda, MD when he was 11. Itai enjoys critical theory, philosophy and Leftist politics. You can contact him

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