Questions of the Humanities and its 'Value'

The integrative humanities is a form of value creation because it shows how contemporary rewritings of the past damage the present and the future.

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The tense dynamic between academic freedom and academic accountability will persist for publicly funded universities – and questions will be asked of the “utility” of disciplines in an age of economic downturns and calls for instrumentalisation – social usefulness – of research. In this context, disciplinary distinctions will be exacerbated where funding agencies will examine “utility” above all else.

Here it is germane to note that the quantum and varieties of funding are starkly different across disciplines. Let us evaluate how many – and in what quantum – funding sources are available to the sciences (the various research agencies, DBT, DST etc) and those for humanities research (the ICHR, ICSSR, the UGC). (This helps the humanities researchers to become even more self-righteous than they already are, when they can declare that they don’t research (solely) for money!) What is the library fund allocation of the humanities in comparison with that for the sciences (and we will not even talk of equipment costs)?

Structural inequality of this kind is, let us concede, difficult to overcome. But let us also ask questions of policy making. We have a principal scientific adviser to the government. Is there a comparable position for a humanities scholar? In early 2021 we saw a Draft National Science, Technology and Innovation Policy. Is there one for the humanities? Does the term “innovation” apply solely to the STEM disciplines? In institutions across the country, how many humanities scholars – and let us assume the best humanities scholars are equal to the best STEM scholars, just as the worst in one are the same as the worst in the other – are on the now ubiquitous “Innovation Councils”? Is there not a possibility for innovation in the Humanities, as UK and numerous other nations have discovered and actively championed?

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Germany thought it fit to have humanities scholars on the board for expert advice: the independent National Academy of Sciences (established 1652) called upon a specialist in the philosophy of law, besides historians and theologians. Germany obviously never thought that the battle over coronavirus was the province of virologists alone. What about other nations?

The humanities: impact or value?

Debates about the “public good” of the humanities have been around for some time, often in response to self-reflexive claim of a “crisis in the humanities” first enunciated by J.H. Plumb in 1964. This standard trope of the crisis has gone on for too long, and while scholars and public intellectuals like Martha Nussbaum have offered intensive defences of the humanities’ role, there is no reason to revisit the debate.

One aspect of the debate has, however, changed: from questions of impact to those about value. This is where the plot thickens and you see not just crisis but opportunity.

The emphasis placed on innovation in universities and research is really about impact and dates back, Paul Benneworth, Magnus Gulbrandsen and Ellen Hazelkorn note, to the 1984 OECD reports on innovation. And this has been linked to not only an instrumental view of research but also a strong commercialisation approach. High tech firms, electronics research, biotech innovations are cast in this mould with “innovation” coded as commercially viable. The marketisation of intellectual work in labs is the great game, and this is both impact and innovation.

Arguing that the Humanities are “differently useful”, commentators responded to questions of “value”. A 2008 document from the Arts and Humanities Research Council stated:

“[Humanities] contribute to a growing body of knowledge on human experience, agency, identity and expression, as constructed through language, literature, artefacts and performance.”

Palpable in this account is a huge shift, from measuring impact to describing value. John Brewer in an extended essay on the “new public social science” distinguished between “public impact” and “public value”. Measuring impact is an attempt to explain the usefulness of research beyond its own domain. For Brewer, “value” is the development of understanding in the public through research going out into the public.

Humanities research is keener on demonstrating value than on measuring impact. More astutely – yes, some humanities scholars are that – the emphasis is on demonstrating and arguing for what a society must value. For example, the humanities’ insistence on “values” such as freedom, justice, equality are crucial in shaping what the public wants or aspires to. Likewise, the battle over normative paradigms, the resistance to homogenisation and a concomitant weightage to heterogeneity, the interrogation of unjust structures of power are signposts that Humanities puts up for a public to see and rectify in the society.

This emphasis on values and value creation is a new “moment” in the self-reflexive assessment of the Humanities. Sverker Sörlin in an 2018 essay on “Humanities of Transformation” argues that even the long-standing emphasis on innovation is changing. He writes:

the uncertain position of the humanities that is reflected in the literature can be ascribed to an ongoing shift in knowledge politics from a paradigm of innovation and economic growth … to an emerging knowledge regime more sensitive to the complexity of today’s societal challenges.

He insists that value creation is the “value” of the humanities. But Sörlin admits, like everyone else reflecting on the Humanities (and Social Sciences), that accountability and a response to society’s challenges are here to stay. No amount of tall, and abstract, claims about what humanities does can be an adequate response to the set of questions society asks. Craig Calhoun summarised these questions in a 2006 essay:

“Where does its [the university’s] money come from? (2) who governs? (3) who benefits? and (4) how is knowledge produced and circulated?”

Sörlin proposes that humanities is moving forward – as a response to these questions – to directly address societal problems.

The integrative humanities

In Sörlin’s view, we can see emerging the contours of an integrative Humanities, defined as:

“interdisciplinary combinations of knowledge areas, integration of teaching with research, and a forceful and multifaceted integration of third mission/collaboration efforts into the everyday lives of university working departments, centres, or institutes.”

Sörlin’s example for the integrative humanities is the Environmental Humanities, and he points to initiatives such as the Environmental Arts and Humanities Program at UCLA  by the environmental critic Ursula Heise. He adds “bio-, techno-, medical-, geo-, digital-, public-“ humanities as other examples.

(Sörlin assumes that people in humanities know at least these their own discipline’s methodology, which is not always the case if we were to examine our colleagues’ published work. In order to be “interdisciplinary” surely one needs to know at least one discipline well, to start with? – but that is a different debate.)

Elsewhere Wiebe Denecke in the May 2021 issue of the Journal of World Literature calls for a Global Humanities initiative which, like Sörlin’s examples, would be “a head-on response to the greatest challenges of our times: systemic racism, inequality, and fundamentalisms, which are rooted in the unresolved aftermath of wars, colonization, and violence, and use classical heritage for nationalist propaganda”.

And just in case we assume this is all about the contemporary, Denecke adds, “To create more equal societies in the present we need to create more equality for other pasts – and learn from all they offer.”

Sörlin and Denecke are prescient observers and are pointing to the increasing role of social conditions like climate change, wars and their aftermath and biomedical cultures play in humanities research. Sceptics may well ask questions of expertise – what do literary scholars who cannot get beyond the soporific prose of Samuel Richardson or the tungsten-cast poetry of Ezra Pound understand of medical imaging or carbon monoxide? – in these initiatives. That is, of course, a legitimate question and making claims about “intersectionality” and the primacy of discourse does not offset the “problem” of being able to deal with, say, the science of climate change or the clear material crisis in commercial  reproductive technologies.

That said, the focus that scholars from the humanities – Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti – and from cognate fields like history/sociology/philosophy of science, medical anthropology Hannah Landecker, Nikolas Rose – and the critiques of, say bioeconomy and the precarious lives they produce are not studies of discourses alone but of processes and practices that are material.  Take Hannah Landecker’s Culturing Life: How Cells became Technologies (2007), in which the focus is on how “novel biotechnical objects such as endlessly proliferating cell lines affect concepts of individuality, immortality, and hybridity”.

Essays in collections such as Kaushik Sunder Rajan’s Lively Capital and Mads Thomsen-Jacob Wamberg’s Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism or the work of Lesley Sharpe (Strange Harvest: Organ Transplants, Denatured Bodies, and the Transformed Self) bring to their analysis of discourses and representations, material practices and societal issues, whether this is the Anthropocene, posthuman technologies of reinventing the human or the globalisation of organs and tissues. Studying patent regimes, forms of knowledge production in laboratories and universities but with a clear focus on the unevenness of resources and dissemination, prejudices (such as eugenic utopias), commercialisation and potentially discriminatory ideologies of all these fields, the integrative humanities is not humanities alone (if humanities was ever “alone”).

This is not to scare literary scholars off their Austens and their Adigas (It is not that there is no future for reading!). With an increasing call for accountability and “value” for publicly funded research, the relevance of language and literature to reading, say, bioeconomies and the ecocrisis will have to be spelt out. Examining how, for example, the language of science constructs notions of the individual or the discourse of altruistic organ transplantation constructs the family or community would reposition the literary-cultural scholar in a broader field where these languages and discourses operate to not always discern but often to discriminate. Sciences, like the law or medical technologies also require representation, language and symbolic structures – and these are texts.

We see moves in this integrative direction, in emerging fields like Memory Studies or posthumanism. Trained to read for language – of course, depends on how well trained they are, beyond the summary and the Wikipedia – those who work within the integrative humanities are in fact well placed to respond to social conditions. This is a substantive gain, or so one would think. It also demonstrates the resilience of the humanities.

Humanities and its autopoiesis

Sciences do not have – or not in the same quantity – public-shaping influences on their research, as a Nature editorial pointed out as early as 2004.  STEM researchers, the editorial implied, drew clear boundaries around their work, seeking and respecting only peer-responses to their research and even, on occasion, seeing public responses and engagement as detrimental to their work. As the Nature editorial put it:

“The UK government ran a public debate on genetic modification last year and is widely believed to have ignored the results — something only a little less offensive than talking about babbling hags.”

In sharp contrast, it could be argued that society, the public and the world at large influence humanities research and the work of public intellectuals in philosophy, political science, literary studies feed off the concerns, problems and social issues. While not strictly an autopoietic system, the absence of rigid disciplinary boundaries or an excessive reliance on peer-review/response alone ensures that, for example, inequality or climate change debates in the public domain shape the discourses in humanities research. humanities work is far more recursive and responsive for this reason.

The integrative humanities calls for those trained in reading texts of all kinds to expand their very notions of texts. It studiously examines humanities practices as a means of addressing material social issues. It refuses to separate the human from practices that enable the humanness or discourses that construct concepts of identity – and these can be medical, climatological, demographic, economic or technological. It takes the problems and concerns of society and transforms them into practices and pedagogies of reading. In this sense, the humanities has always been both social and public: from them it draws its energy.

The integrative humanities is a form of value creation because it shows how contemporary rewritings of the past damage the present and the future, or how practices of citizenship laws, technology, governance or the market have begun to determine what it means to be human. Through all this, it teaches us what we ought to value.

Pramod K. Nayar teaches at the University of Hyderabad.