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In a recent blog post, Stanley Fish proclaims that the humanities crisis has officially arrived and takes George Philip, president of SUNY-Albany, to task for axing the French, Italian, classics, Russian, and theater programs. Fish claims

it is the job of presidents and chancellors to proclaim the value of liberal arts education loudly and often and at least try to make the powers that be understand what is being lost when traditions of culture and art that have been vital for hundreds and even thousands of years disappear from the academic scene.

Fish’s strategy is political: take the debate to the floors of state senates. Yet allow me to tentatively posit that perhaps our Modern Liberal Democracy (MLD for brevity) itself may be to blame. Whether we like it or not, MLD—the American one in particular—has a hard time understanding the value of something apart from its utility, its instrumentality—McLuhan called this “know how” (for a fuller, if occasionally simplistic, explanation of this idea, check out Neil Postman’s Technopoly).

Before continuing, I probably should define “Modern Liberal Democracy.” I’m only a poet who reads political philosophy sometimes, so be nice. I also realize I’m speaking broadly, and perhaps that makes me sloppy. But I hope the general gesture of this essay will out-merit its limits. Briefly, by MLD I mean modern democratic societies which have roots in Enligthenment (particularly “state of nature”) philosophy—liberal in the classical sense.

These democracies generally value individual freedom above all: I don’t disagree with your viewpoint, but I’ll die for your right to have it. Necessarily, whatever common values there are tend to be (problematically) vague and non-threatening: equality, justice, freedom of speech, etc. And even these values are not absolute; they are held in tension with prevailing political demands of the day: torture sometimes mitigates the assumed innocence of the accused; hate crimes legislation allows justice to take off the blinders; freedom of speech covers many things, but not exposing your genitals publicly. You find MLD throughout Europe & North America, primarily, but is being strenuously exported to other continents (along with the market system).

Initially, MLD seems to be the perfect environment for the Liberal Arts: freedom of speech, no midnight raids to arrest thought criminals or moralistic politicians jockeying for votes in a culture war (well…maybe not)—even the name similarities suggest a proper convergence of values. Yet in America and other governmentally  similar environments (h/t: Daniel Silliman), the sky has been falling on the liberal arts for years.

But we should note that this is not necessarily a new thing in history. In the last few days I’ve been reading through the history of Argentina. One thing that historian Jonathan Brown points out is that as soon as Argentina transitioned from an oligarchy of political elites to a MLD, the public universities shifted focus from the liberal arts to the sciences. This makes me want to ask, are the humanities an elite interest? Do professors of the humanities work at the indulgence of the privileged? Are the humanities a societal indulgence?

I don’t think the correlation between here is accidental. It might even be causal. Consider that the sciences and related disciplines are easily justified to the public in the type of discourse allowed in a MLD: remember, no absolute claims to ultimate values systems allowed—free speech, freedom of belief/conviction, and all that. But the liberal arts are much more difficult to justify in a MLD. As Fish states, “What can you say to the tax-payer who asks, ‘What good does a program in Byzantine art do me?’” Fish goes on to say

…it won’t do to invoke…pieties…— the humanities enhance our culture; the humanities make our society better — because those pieties have a 19th century air about them and are not even believed in by some who rehearse them.

Interestingly enough, Fish (bleakly) hopes that this very defense will work with politicians who “like to think of themselves as crackerbarrel philosophers and historians.” (Talk about jaded!) And yet we live in an age when state (and probably federal) politicians refuse to use standard accounting practices and keep kicking the can of financial reckoning down the road. Unfortunately for these politicians, there are literally no more pieces of the state to sell off and rent back in order to keep the budget balanced; there are no more pension funds to borrow from. Thus it seems to me that the voters are the very people that must be convinced to sacrifice certain services and pay more taxes in order to keep the humanities—not the politicians. But how do we do that?

This emphasis on a useful education leaves little room for a more or less utilitarian education (though MFA programs flourish, interestingly) and has forced literary studies to become more scientific in their approach; college administrators expect the same kind of research from the local Miltonist (if she or he is not dead yet) as we get from a chair in research science. Robert Pippin sums this shift up well in his recent “Defense of Naïve Reading” from the New York Time’s Philosopher’s Stone series:

Philology, with its central focus on language, was once the master model for all the sciences and it was natural for teachers to try to train students to make good texts, track down sources, learn about conflicting editions and adjudicate such controversies. Then, as a kind of natural extension of these practices, came historical criticism, national language categorization, work on tracing influences and patronage, all contributing to the worry about classifying various schools, movements or periods. Then came biographical criticism and the flood gates were soon open wide: psychoanalytic criticism, new or formal criticism, semiotics, structuralism, post-structuralism, discourse analysis, reader response criticism or “reception aesthetics,” systems theory, hermeneutics, deconstruction, feminist criticism, cultural studies. And so on.

Similarly, other authors like Patrick Deneen have pinned the decline of the liberal arts on the imitation of the German Research model of education, which divided disciplines “into specialized disciplines and [placed] stress on expertise and the discovery of new knowledge”:

When conservative critics of our universities nowadays lament the decline of liberal education, they usually decry its replacement by a left-leaning politicized agenda. But the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally displaced by scientific education buttressed by the demands of global competition.

This certainly helps frame the perennial American media’s anxiety about American students falling behind the Chinese in math & science (seriously: just Google “American students falling behind”). But it is important to note that Deneen defines the “humanities” in a way that is crucial to his argument. Deneen takes the classical understanding of “the humanities,” which stands in direct contradiction to the modern era’s desire to escape “all forms of power and control, [which implies] that the ideal human condition [is] one of complete liberty—even the liberty from what was once understood to be human.” Deneen skewers modern conservatives (read: culture wars), but Deneen’s impulse is itself deeply conservative.

For Deneen, the liberal arts are the study of humanity and is aimed at making students into better people—not better citizens, mind you; there’s a difference: they’re related, but not interchangeably. Such enlightened people respect the limits of what it means to be human. (Side note: This view of human limits dovetails interestingly with Wendell Berry’s 2008 essay in Harper’s “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits.”)

There is something fundamentally conservative (in a way that would baffle most Republicans and Tea Partiers) about Deneen’s (and Berry’s) ideal of limits. But this ideal also baffles modern liberals. This ideal implies that there should be a singular and definite understanding of humans and how they relate to both nature and each other. Somewhere the “Fascist alert” is going off in our heads. It must be said, however, that while nobody (except a fascist) admires Ezra Pound’s dedication to fascism—especially since it was probably motivated by Pound’s racial anxieties—his politics are brought into better focus if we believe that MLD inevitably dismantles the humanities.

None of this is an attempt to justify Pound’s despicable politics. Rather, it should highlight that the humanities and modern liberal democracy may be fundamentally at odds. Thus, we should expect the actions of someone like President Philip when state budgets get tight. And in the coming “age of austerity,” it’s something we should probably get used to.

In fact, if Deneen is right in his genealogy of the humanities—and I suspect he is—then the humanities are conservative in the most radical way. Ironically, it is the modern liberals who take up the cause in the state house. Deneen’s claims rattle all our categories. Perhaps this is why so many professors who recite Fish’s “pieties” don’t actually believe it themselves. The crisis of the humanities is not external, then, it’s internal. Humanities programs aren’t being attacked because the voters are cretinous philistines (though we poets & writers prefer to stroke our own egos in thinking so). The humanities are suffering an identity crisis and are being picked off as the weakest competitors for state funding.

Let’s say, however, that we accept Deneen’s genealogy, that the humanities and our modern liberal democracy are invariably at odds; does that mean that we should return to the classical understanding of humanities? Deneen is obviously suspicious of things that most poets & writers (a diverse & liberal bunch to be sure) would enthusiastically embrace. Deneen notes with palpable disgust that

one is…likely to find [in the modern university] indoctrination in multiculturalism, disability studies, queer studies, postcolonial studies, a host of other victimization studies, and the usual insistence on the centrality of the categories of race, gender, and class.

I personally tend more towards understanding things through the lens of technology (as opposed to race, gender, and class), and I wonder whether Deneen would list this category in his anathema of “victimization studies”? I’m not convinced of Deneen’s charity in this statement, and I think he engages in the very culture wars rhetoric he wants to skewer (plus there are better ways to tackle  “diversity” in the modern—particularly elite—university). But I do appreciate Deneen’s skepticism. And even one who vehemently disagrees with Deneen must admit that his characterizations of academia are eerily spot on in disturbing ways.

I suppose it boils down to this question: Is there a robust way to preserve the humanities against modern liberal democracy’s instrumental values system? Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment. But this effort is clearly failing, and before long we might not have any humanities courses left in which we are able to debate this very question.

And there is another question: are we trying to have it both ways? Both MLD and the liberal arts? Do they jive as well as we have always thought?

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Micah Towery teaches writing and literature in South Bend, IN. His book of poetry is Whale of Desire. His writing appears in magazines like AWP Chronicle, Mantis, Slant Magazine, and his poetry and translations appear in Cimarron Review, Paterson Literary Review, Ragazine, Loaded Bicycle, and Prime Number Magazine. In the past, he's worked as a Coca-Cola delivery driver, bus driver, baker, and church organist. He sometimes tweets @micahtowery.

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  • Brooks Lampe October 16, 2010, 4:56 am

    One might speculate that Fish and others who see the humanities in MLD as highly problematic are guilty of a kind of “presentism,” which is evaluating everything only according to contemporary standards and values. For such folks, the humanities must be justified with (and only with) the schema of MLD. It’s when you dignify such a mindset with a defense that you trap yourself in a false dilemma: “Either I justify humanities according to MLD standards, or I do not justify it and call it just leisure and indulgence.” It’s precisely because the humanities resists this dilemma that makes it so vitally necessary. It’s the only (secular) way to transcend MLD. And I want to transcend it like a motherfucker.

  • Pigsnout2 October 16, 2010, 8:33 am

    Kenneth Burke has a wonderful essay touching on Kant’s use criteria (The essay is called three aethetes if I remember correctly and is in his great book Counter statement). and the anxiety in the arts caused by that question being posited: of what use are the arts? Before the rise of industrial mass production and the dominance of technology, the question was never asked. Several positions were put forth to deal with the anxiety caused by the question including “art for art’s sake”: The arts are of no use whatsoever, and we like it that way!” Others were art as social uplift (which seems to be championed by politicos only during times of prosperity). Art as a sort of science in its own right (hence the modernist obsession with process), etc, etc. Fred (that German dude) said art can be of value simply by injecting a dose of “wickedness” into an age to keep it from becoming too hopelessly itself (Art as the corrective, or the counter). “to inoculate a civilzation as it were against its own worst tendencies.” Universities were never supposed to house law schools, engineering schools, etc. In the 19th century, ne apprenticed with a lawyer. PEople become utilitarian where their wallets are concerned. The hard sciences have done as much to bring us to the verge of destruction as they have to give us our advances, so their value as a moral center is nil to none unless you believe as the new neural folks believe that a re-shaping of the brain by science will solve all social ills. I don’t know why usefulness is the chief test of even the sceinces. One could argue that certain techologies have wiped out more useful and more sustainable ways of life, lead to gross over population, and lead to the current widening gap between the very rich and the poor by eliminating all work of the hands. “usefulness” may be the wrong question, and it may be that the aesthetics of use need to be questioned.

  • Travis Timmons October 16, 2010, 1:21 pm

    Thanks, man! (I’m glad you brought the Pippin piece in too.)

    Isn’t the big elephant in the room economic systems that democracies are usually packaged with? In terms of “instrumentalization,” I would say that capitalism is probably more a fault than a political system, although the politic system obviously colludes with the economic one.

    So I might say instead that it’s capitalism’s emphasis on instrumentality that is the catalyst of the humanities’ problem. I wonder if Fish’s focus on MLD is simply an accidental red herring. (In Argentina’s switch to MLD, what happened economically?)

    Second, and this is where I found Pippin’s article compelling earlier this week, many humanities department (but especially English) were haphazardly founded, all the while looking for some “scientific” methodology. The project is doomed from the start. No sense purpose (and I’m not just talking about purpose = instrumental knowledge; just ANY purpose …), no reason for being, hence no confidence in the endeavor and the constant crisis of legitimation.

    Realizing this hole in the heart of English studies in my early readings of a routine survey of Lit. Crit. did me in.

  • Anonymous October 16, 2010, 3:39 pm

    @ travis: your story, travis, about being “done in” by the scientific readings is a story i’ve heard over and over again from talented english students. many are running for the hills after having spent a few semesters in upper level lit courses.

    on the other hand, when i see someone like zizek (who i only have read briefly), he’s someone who–i think–uses theory as a tool and no more. for him, psychoanalysis is a tool used to pry open different ideas and say interesting things. and i find that he’s said many interesting things that way. i think though, my reading of zizek (and other critics like him) might be more my fault than his. perhaps he really does take psychoanalysis seriously–i don’t. but i find it a useful tool that can help us do challenging and important readings.

  • Anonymous October 16, 2010, 3:41 pm

    joe, i think you’re right on. we need to interrogate how actually useful the sciences have been. of course i don’t want to get rid of my laptop, but i think that might be the tail wagging the dog at this point :)

  • Anonymous October 16, 2010, 3:42 pm

    “transcend it like a motherfucker.” we should make that thethe’s new tag line.

    “the the poetry…transcend it like a motherfucker.”

  • james October 17, 2010, 12:47 am

    “Certainly in the last 50 or so years there have been valiant attempts to affirm the usefulness of the humanities in our modern political environment.”
    isn’t affirming the usefulness of the humanities part of the problem? perhaps this has already been said, but usefulness is a value only for the modern instrumentality we wish to work against. perhaps, mutatis mutandis, this can be applied to the humanities more broadly, but i find it convincing and honest when the theologian says, “Knowledge of God is useless. God is an end. He is not applied usefully elsewhere.”

    (also, pigsnout, as great as apprenticed lawyers would be, law [with medicine and theology] is one of the three higher faculties of the classic university.)

  • Stewart Kahn Lundy October 17, 2010, 2:16 pm

    Perhaps the problem with MLD (sounds like an STD) is an obsession with arbitrary (ungrounded) “newness” as opposed to authentic originality (George Steiner, “Real Presences”). Originality necessarily originates at a particular place and time and within a specific historical vocabulary. As much as atavistic vocabulary is anachronistic, so too is arbitrarily novel vocabulary. Neither is authentic, neither is spontaneous.Life is grounded in originality (life originates from life from death…) but the inherent newness in originality is never and in no way arbitrary. Unlike MLD which is an abstraction of ungrounded, arbitrary, and unlimited newness, the humanities expose the limits of our hermeneutical situation. We are limited by history, vocabulary, and death. But it is our limits that expose our authentic possibilities. Without the limits of gravity, humans could not walk. In the same way, without the limits of history, we cannot be original.Average everyday people reduce all things to dead objects ready-at-hand, ready to be manipulated (manus, “hand”). In a Cartesian world full of nothing but unrelated dead objects, the only missing element is Will. The arbitrary Will of MLD is an arbitrariness which originates from the dissociation of oneself and one’s circumstances: one is contingent, always.So, yes. It seems the humanities are inconsistent with MLD… but what is the antidote? What can we do to fix this problem?

  • Adam October 18, 2010, 3:43 am

    This essay is hugely ambitious and I admire it. I also admire the nerve—and verve—of Micah’s ability to take our West on, head-on, mercilessly. In the spirit of the piece, however, I can’t help asking a question in response to what’s only hinted at here implicitly: If the arts can’t quite thrive as they have in a Modern Liberal Democracy, then where and how can they survive better? I’m no expert, but it’s pretty easy to see the greatest moments of the arts seem to coincide with democracy as we know it. From the great dramas of Athens—a Republic of City States—to the Renaissance of Italy—wealthy patrons of Italian pre-modern democracy—to Elizabethan England and America. It’s easy to forget marginalized literatures of other non-white, non-European nations: but no art without freedom. You can see the consequences of this in Germany, Russia and China most dramatically—but it’s visible anywhere, USA too.

    Okay, so if our government and culture was less “liberal,” how would art become more appreciated? I fail to see the connection yet.

    If your point is that as a culture (that is, rather than as a nation), we are more obsessed with motorways than museums (see Henry James)—that’s as old as America. We’ve always been about big money and capital, haven’t we? As the means and standards of how to produce money changes so drastically in the last years, the Canon of the humanities—the fine arts, literature, drama, etc.—no longer seem as relevant to making Facebooks, Googles, Microsofts. And of course, what use did a thing like a lyric poem ever have in terms of striking it rich? The pedigree and veneer of a certain type of liberal arts education has been eroded, yes, but literacy and an appreciation for the arts have been eclipsed not by Democracy so much as technology and sociology. If your argument is, loosely, we’re a more materialistic people, and therefore less interested in the arts, and modern Democracy overvalues materialism—then you’ll have to convince me why in the 19th century England—the biggest boon of industrialism on the face of the earth from times past, new literature poured forth, Dickens and Shakespeare and many others in each home. Literature, specifically, had a middle ground for a long time between entertainment and art. Shakespeare’s plays were not seen as art. Dickens was not seen as Ovid or Horace. Yet those are just two of our immortals that were products of an entertainment culture, they transcended their times as much as they defined and encapsulated them. But entertainment is no longer the text: we’re a visual culture, we’re an audio culture—pop music and movies are how we glut ourselves, and sometimes, just as rarely, things survive the test of time of permanent aesthetic worth. But I still fail to see how democracy is the culprit here: it allows the beast to thrive, but let’s go after the politics of tenure, let’s go after the corporate marketing that is much more totalitarian in its effectiveness—more and more product produced by fewer and fewer voices and ideas. Lip service in the academia from the left, which wants otherness but at the expense of literature and passé notions of Art; total churning out of repackaged acts from corporate tycoons creating and satisfying the tastes of our generations. That said: I’d like to see what culture or nation that is NOT a Modern Liberal Democracy and only succeeding in the arts.

    You take a lot of stabs at some very large issues—but I want to see more specific, urgent connections between your sense of our political structure and our current pedagogical structures. SUNY Presidents—isn’t that just another corporate model? Democracies ALLOW for corporate capitalists, sure, but they’re not synonymous. One’s a platform, the other’s the software. Is our platform to blame, or what we choose to load on it? You let me know.

  • Anonymous October 18, 2010, 5:14 am

    hey adam. you make lots of great points here and throw down some important gauntlets for my ideas.

    you’re definitely right in asking for clarification and more specific engagement. one of the great things about blogs is that they’re a good format to let ideas develop. not quite published essay with footnotes, but not informal journal entry either, perhaps the blog will allow me to continue building my idea and corralling evidence as i see and reflect upon it.

    one particular area i definitely should make clarification has to do with “the arts,” “the humanities,” and art. the role that art holds in society at large is “the arts.” this does not preclude an artist from laboring as an individual on some piece of art. so, even if “the arts” are down and out, great art can still be created. indeed, perhaps in a way similar to the romantics, much great art is created in reaction to the dominant trends in society.

    i would say that my argument is less about materialism (although that certainly comes into play), but more about the modern perception of the human. the older perception–if deneen’s genealogy is right–created a place for “the arts” in society. even during times of incredible social breakdown, “the arts” could still flourish. now, even though the art of many individual artists is in full bloom, “the arts” are doing terribly. so i guess i’d like to point out what is, perhaps, a double edged sword. the freedom of modern liberal democracy allows for a great range of expression on the part of many individuals (particularly those who have been traditionally marginalized). on the other hand, it seems to demote the place of “the arts” from a social perspective. this does not mean we must return to the old model that deneen longs for, but i think we need to keep our eyes open about what it has done to our beloved english departments.

  • Phill Provance October 24, 2010, 3:41 pm

    I enjoyed this, but I think it misses one obvious point: It assumes “Modern Liberal Democracy” is synonymous with a capitalistic system. I noticed Micah was precise in stating his definition of “liberal” was “classical.” But I think it is assuming too much to say that democracy and the liberal arts are at odds over the liberal arts’ usefulness. What are really at odds are the liberal arts and the market. The unspoken assumption in this blog post is simply that democracy and its virtues intrinsically are capitalistic, which I find foul and too easily pulled from the last 30 years of right-wing propaganda.

    A more equal society which treasures economic equality as well as political and judicial equality would not be so bent on “usefulness.” The very plurative nature of liberal arts discourse is very in-tune with democratic principles of free speech, giving any sound argument the floor as worthwhile. Rather, it is the market and the capitalist that scoff at the notion of anything without monetary value having value that has led to the crackdown on the Liberal Arts. Most academics know this–or, at least, intuit it–and so many are “pinkos.”

    It is funny, however, that capitalism, which dictates power to the most moneyed among us, should target centers of free discourse, which reject any definite notion of “human.” Rather, I would posit that the Liberal Arts and democracy are totally in-tune. What is not in tune with either is capitalism and the plutocracy it engenders. Give us a modern socialist democracy, and I think you will see the entire structure will be in harmony, including the liberal arts. After all, the only thing making the tax payer of a capitalistic state question the benefit of something with no monetary value is the culture of monetary value perpetuated by money itself, in its myriad propagandistic (read: faux-art) forms.

  • Phill Provance October 24, 2010, 4:07 pm

    As a secondary note: The reason free discourse that allows innumerable definitions of “human” is at odds with the market is because it creates a condition in which the individual may knowingly create her own identity that is not necessarily in sync with her peers’. This is all well and good in a Democracy because even if nearly every citizen were to vote for herself to be leader, the one person who would become leader would have at least one friend who would think that that person deserved it or had provided enough favors to have earned a second vote.

    But in the case of capitalism a plurality of individual identities is dangerous. After all, if people took to creating what they wanted or needed there would be no money in making it for them. Furthermore, if every individual wanted something different everything would have to be made product-by-product, undermining the possibilities for mass production and mass profit. The history of the humanities’ decline, then, I would attribute to the rise of mass profit and the need to socialize as much of the population as possible to desire the same goods and services.

    This has certainly been the aim of pulp, pop and other market-driven arts, which play to the greatest common denominator and utilize all that money can buy to log roll their value in a way similar to how Fascist propaganda convinced many very reasonable people of unreasonable ideas by simply repeating those ideas very loudly. For example: There is very little artistic value in contemporary pop music. It is this way because it is composed according to the numbers–marketing research would show that sex and love sell, so a song about love ostensibly sung by a scantily clad teenage girl will appeal to most as long as the lyrics do not become sexual themselves (and thus come to odds with some peoples’ Victorian values).

    This “art” is then packaged in a way that is attractive to the greatest common denominator and the company that backs its production pays off as many people as it can to say it is worth listening to. The average consumer, feeling alienated by thoughts they have no training in giving voice to, then hears this praise, recognizes the omnipresence of this meme in the society around her, and purchases the “art” in an attempt to connect with other people. Meanwhile, her connection to this “art” (which, again, is really a desire to connect with others) is exploited through the marketing web of that “artist’s” endorsing certain clothing, certain food, certain jewelry, etc.

    In short, by the 22 century, if the current system holds, everyone will be famous for at least 15 minutes, but that fame will mean very little as it will allow each of us to give voice to nothing but what we were taught to say in order to please those around us. The competing (and losing) model that the Liberal Arts puts forward or constructing identity from experience and learning, then voicing that and allowing those around you to determine whether they agree is, again, naturally opposed to this but has no power to combat anything in a system where power is all economic.

    The sad part is, though, that “MLD” touts personal freedom and self expression but undermines these things in its present form. Eventually, we will all be able to say what we want because what we want to say will be the mindless drivel fed to us through mass-marketed media. Now, obviously, everyone could learn to think for herself, make her own determinations and be an individual creature of her own devising, and this would not make her any better or worse than anyone else. But that would take a bit of thought. And if you eradicate the very programs teaching people to think, they simply won’t do that.

    O 1984!

  • Anonymous October 24, 2010, 4:40 pm

    thanks for your comments phil. i definitely have some more work to do hammering out these ideas, and i think the blog (with insightful comments like yours) is a great forum for doing so. i think i am going to write another post trying to clarify my ideas and answer some of the objections that have been brought up in the comments here, yours included. stay tuned :-)

  • Steveo October 25, 2010, 2:26 am

    just checking.

  • Phill Provance October 26, 2010, 11:54 am

    @Pigsnout and Micha:

    Firstly, my apologies for not editing my first two responses. I was reading through and got a little embarrassed by some of the more blatant mistakes. Rest assured I spotted them ex post facto.

    Anyhow, I wanted to comment on Pigsnout’s reference to Kant and the long history of the Arts’ struggle to defend their usefulness since the Industrial Revolution: As your brief summation of this history shows each generation of Western artists and academics has had define its own use for the arts since Capitalism took hold. But this is always playing catchup, so I of course appreciate the comment questioning the usefulness of science and technology (as well as business).

    But I think at this point maybe all of us as Micah’s readers could hazard our own definition instead of simply restating the obvious fact that we as a generation of artists and intellectuals can (and probably must) do so.

    As for my contribution to THAT discussion, I think beginning with thinking outside the assumption that a Capitalistic Democracy is inherently best is a good starting. Moreover, while it wouldn’t have had purchase a decade ago in American society there are indications that the public might be willing to accept this idea with a little coaxing–after all, we question our prophets most when their prophecy fails to come true, and the “End of History” posited by triumphant Capitalist(ic) democracies has certainly failed to find purchase.

    I believe, then, that we could define the “usefulness” in defense of the arts by simply broadening our view beyond the assumptions of Classical Liberalism. That is, the Liberal Arts and Art are useful to Democracy because they spur free and creative thought and act as a panacea against political control. This is a very utilitarian purpose; it is one, as I pointed out in my previous post, that will inevitably rub mainstream ideologues, apologists for Capitalism mostly, the wrong way. But it is far more intrinsically Western, and even American, to value free and creative thought.

    Furthermore, Capitalism itself cannot thrive without innovation and creative thought as without it new markets are not created. What, for instance, would the 19th century have been without creative innovators inventing whole new genres of things to sell; an Alexander Bell or Louis Pasteur without any notion of creating something new and questioning assumptions would have simply spent his life double-checking the same proved theories over and over.

    So, in short, I think we can see that the Liberal Arts are useful in every way to not only Democracy–where free thought is necessary to maintain open-minded citizen not swayed by propaganda–but it is also intrinsically useful to Capitalism or Socialism or any economic system that hopes to continue human technological progress (after all, the ridiculous notion that socialist states do not innovate is wholly undermined by the existence of Sputnik). What it is not useful to is Aristocracy, Plutocracy, Dictatorship and Monarchy, all of which can only thrive on the ignorance of their subjects. And so now my definition, I feel, brings up a point that we could collectively put forward to put the opponents of the Arts on the defensive: “What does your campaign against free and creative thought say about you? What do YOU really want?”

  • Alfredcorn1 November 1, 2010, 3:58 am

    Just supposing MLD and the humanties were proven to be incompatible: which then would you choose?

  • Stewart Kahn Lundy November 1, 2010, 12:07 pm

    Pretty sure Micah would choose the humanities. What would you choose, Alfred, and why?

  • Daniel Silliman November 1, 2010, 2:25 pm

    I don’t know if Micah would choose humanities or not. It’s a tough question, if you force the dichotomy.

    It’s like a Whitman vs. Pound death match.

    I wonder if the roil of MLD, even sans humanities, isn’t a better intellectual environment, i.e., a place where thinking could emerge and flourish, than humanities without MLD, where even the liberal arts grow increasingly stullified, stratified, constricted, suffocated — formal.

    Reminds me of Jefferson’s saying about newspapers without democracy vs. the other way around. It’s all about conditions of freedom.

    I think I’m going with Whitman.

  • Stewart Kahn Lundy November 1, 2010, 2:45 pm

    I’d have to agree with you, though I’m interested to hear Micah’s response.

    As for conditions of freedom, I endorse them entirely. Criticisms of democracy are often because democracy doesn’t go in directions that I want. Your reference to Jefferson is perfectly apt. An uninformed consensus is worthless, and that’s pretty much what we have today.

    Ultimately, a genuine (and transparent) democracy would utilize the humanities, revise the humanities, and perhaps continue them indefinitely. But with current trends, where does it look like the humanities are going? Whether or not we force a dichotomy, what is happening to the humanities?

  • Anonymous November 2, 2010, 4:16 am

    alfred, you’ve pinned me into my own corner!

    i do want to write a 2nd post on these ideas, in part to answer questions that have been raised. so maybe i’ll have more to say about your comment in that (not sure yet–the form of the essay has yet to appear in my mind!).

    an initial thought though is that i did not intend to create a dichotomy in which we would be forced to choose. i chose the word “incompatible” not to suggest they were at each other’s throats, but more like reasons listed for a marriage gone bad. in that sense, i’m not sure we have to choose between one or the other, as if the existence of one will lead to the complete destruction of the other.

    like i said, though, i’m still stewing on a response.

  • Brendan McHugh November 7, 2010, 9:11 pm

    I haven’t read the article or the comments, but I must respond to the intriguing title: no, democracy is not compatible with the humanities, because the gods are not elected.

  • Stewart Kahn Lundy November 7, 2010, 11:31 pm


  • Daniel Silliman November 8, 2010, 8:06 am

    Glad you could settle that for us, Brendan.

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  • Kahlil July 21, 2011, 6:01 pm

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  • Kahlil July 21, 2011, 6:01 pm

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