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Simon Kövesi, author of John Clare: Nature, Criticism and History

My response to this general theme of the “defence of the humanities” is to ask lots of questions in a self-important fashion. I apologise for the style to come here – it is not a style I write in, usually. But this is not a subject I turn to, much. My response is born of a sense that has been growing for a while now, that some of what we do to argue for the humanities is, in effect, self-harming. Self-declaring polemics that “defend the humanities” penned by those who are ostensibly most secure in their profession – and I include myself in that bracket – might even be damaging to those principles we in the humanities think we live and work by (though I hold those principles to be anything but homogenous).

So my blog post is not a “defence” of the humanities. I don’t want to mount a “defence of the humanities” because I do not wish to imply that my humanities-based critical practice is an inviolate pristine militarised citadel, all classic lines and Doric columns, and barbed wire atop the inward-facing college wall – or else some kind of stolid form that is beyond critique. A “defence” might imply that. It might also suggest that I have a secure idea of what it is I would be defending. Regardless of the opposing forces rumoured to be “attacking” the humanities, regardless of the professional responsibility you might demand, I still cannot grasp a secure idea of what the humanities is, or what it is for; not because I don’t think it is anything, or for nothing, but because I think it encompasses everything. Probably, I want you to think I resist definition so that I appear more radical than a secure foundation in the shape of knowledge would allow me to be. Though in reality like most of my humanities colleagues, I am probably not so radical – reliant, comforted and paid, as I am, by what the humanities mean institutionally, hierarchically and economically.

I know the humanities are being undermined on many fronts – many of them informed by capitalising versions of value in an entirely economic and monetary sense. Like most of my colleagues, I remain deeply concerned about the monetisation and commercialisation of higher education, the functionalism of education in general, and about what debt and crass vocation-seeking do to the valuation of the humanities in higher education. It would be weird if I wasn’t concerned about all of that. But there have been so many defensive and brittle articles about these aspects of the “attack” on the humanities, that I want to use this opportunity to push in a different direction: to look at the humanities and wonder what it – or they – might enable.

Writing this blog essay makes me less sure of what the humanities is, not more secure that I know it to be something worth “defending”. The very word “humanities” pushes into the light the irritating fact that as a word, indicating the broad categorisation of a sweeping set of disciplines, “humanities” does not mean as much to me as “art” or the even narrower habits of “literature”. And literary criticism, which is what my narrow slice of activity is called, is neither art, nor meaningfully does it require the label “humanities” in anything other than in its institutional organisation (universities, libraries, funding bodies). I hope I am not deliberately seeking to cause trouble for the sake of it, nor resisting categorisation because – in puerile self-regard – I don’t want my work to be defined (you cannot box me in, I won’t be tied down – that sort of thing). But still the words that categorise our work have to mean something particularising to our cause, to mean much. And if we are to defend them, if we are to cluster underneath the words on a banner of continual protest, these categories have to mean everything.

I want my discipline category to include rubble, to own detritus. I want it to be grounded, sub-cultural, insecure, furtive, subterranean, adult, dangerous. The critical humanities as a threat, not a duvet. The self-immolating speaker of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, not a cock-sure hero of a pap genre thriller. Though we can talk about both, we must tend towards complexity, towards paradox, towards the anti-hero, towards the marginalised and the minoritarian. I want to attack the disciplines myself. I want my words to be variations of attack, not defence. I want my words to be attacked. I want the “process” of the humanities to be varied and discomfiting and awkward and immeasurable and playful and irresponsible and celebratory and unsustainable and explosive and unsettling and wasteful. Critical indiscipline, rather than academic discipline.

I want this, because so many other academic areas have given up the ghost – or (to be kinder) have to live by actual products, tangible outputs beyond the book or the article – bridges and roads, new drugs, treatments, buildings, software, environment, maps, policy. In the humanities, we claim to be free: and we claim to be agents of freedom, yet we are the greatest critics of freedom’s assumptions and implications and distortions. Language is metaphor. We know that claims to freedom are rhetorical device. We are aware of how little freedom anyone has in organised societies. Yet we ourselves write the word “freedom” on university branded paper. We ask – what does freedom mean? So we criticise ideological prisons as well as those built by the stones of law in which our fellow humans dwell. We irritate. We claim to be radical and edgy from within the safe havens of elite institutions. And we argue because the argument is there to be had. We might not storm the Bastille, but we talk a lot, restlessly, about doing so. Constant agreement threatens supine complacency. Do we argue for a living? Someone has to ask questions, or else society is reduced to machinic processes of acquiescence. We seek truth, yet we revel in fiction. Humanities has no territory, because we are liberated in our critical practice, and we write beyond the walls of ownership, from behind the safe walls of university life, if we’re lucky. We occupy an irresolvable and paradoxical situation as humanities scholars and the resultant discomfort must be a necessary constituent of our work. We worry away at the “crisis” in the humanities: but are worry and crisis driving forces of humanities scholarship?

I want argument. Because to my mind, literary criticism – after investigation, balance and proof – is argument. Argument in process; sifting and moving; lifting and probing; destroying, reassessing, renewing, modernising and antiquating. I like old stuff, I like new stuff, but I like mixed up old-and-new stuff best, because it is troubling, and provokes questions. Because it is not pure. Purity is a myth of the totalitarian, of the scientist, of the ideologue. Poetry is dirty.

The literary-critical end of the humanities spectrum is sustained not by declaration of fact or by assertions of fixed value, nor by normalisations, but by sceptical questions that seek to prod, probe, find evidence for and against, quiz and yes – sometimes – demolish. Variation, fluctuation, imagination, qualification, daydreaming, procrastination, deferral. A book delivered too late and with a different objective than that planned. No discernible ends in sight. No end.

I am not an architect. No one needs to live inside any of my ideas, and no one looks to them for food or cure, and they would be foolish to do so. If I contribute at all, I contribute questions. I join an ongoing argument. I don’t want that argument to close down or close off unless it is boring or stale or becoming accepted, and if so, I should leave it behind. If we humanities people see a wall, we dig underneath it, or we push through it, or we walk along it, or we jump over it – all by asking: what is a wall? What is the history of walls? What is the power that built the wall? What territories does it assert and deny? Yet I am not building anything; I am free to not build, to not assert ownership, to quiz definitions and not to make them. I can criticise a system without suggesting another system to replace it – because in my job as a critic I am free of responsibility, free of care, free of determined outcomes – though the risk is that the subjects are free only to diminishing extents. I know humanities to be important, but I resist defining its social function, resist turning it into a project, or policy. I have morality through the humanities precisely because I question ethical practices, question authority, question rhetoric – lift up the ideological stone to see what lurks beneath. And then realise that stone and insects beneath form a metaphorical mess that obscures and manipulates. So I question myself and my motives, and the styles I adopt. Everything has an agenda.

Although it seems in reality I do not – I like to think that I resist doing anything designed to be measurable by those who maintain that economic or social or educational value are the end points of all academic and intellectual endeavour. Who gave such people – such ideologies, such mindsets – control? We did – and we do every day we write or answer an email along those lines. These people are us. And these are the ideologies and mindsets we work and think by. What impact do you have? What is your economic value? Fill in this spreadsheet and  enumerate the precise number of four-star research outputs in your unit of assessment. What do I have to measure and offer for my tenure portfolio? My ideas have so far amounted to 78cm of silver rod and I have filled 2.6 golden bowls with the love in my books. Can wisdom be put in a silver rod, or love in a golden bowl?

Well, yes William Blake, it seems we have allowed it to be so. And we are ashamed when we teach radical art or radical politics; but shame is awareness, is insight, is opportunity. Systems and tools govern us, that we sought to drive, when we first saw them in the car showroom of academic ambition. Even if there is no palpable humanities castle to defend, still we make the case for the humanities’ significance every time we argue, every time we expose our words. And we wreck the purpose of the humanities every time we rest on our laurels, every time we measure it or count it or convert it into money, or every time we feel superior. So let’s argue. Opposition for opposition’s sake. Planes of being not hierarchies of deference. Sentences without verbs.

Are the humanities free? Does study of and through the humanities free people? Does it unshackle in practice and on purpose? Does it actually hold the powerful to account (and are we brave enough to want it to do so)? Who are the powerful in the humanities? Is the profession all about earning potential, about paying off debt, about providing articulacy and succour to powerful orthodoxies of money and hierarchy, about feeding the machine – the hospital, the university, the career, the livestock pen, the abattoir – of capital?

Why do we constantly need to “defend the humanities”? It is so dull: we step out into a battle none cares for except us, and we look behind us to see what legions we can draw on, and all we see are our colleagues suddenly dissipate into careerist clerks, recede into risk-averse bureaucracy. The ghost of Akaky Akakievich searching for his overcoat, in the frozen mist of a Gogol farce.

I can see myself better, for having read Gogol: my snobbery, my jealousy, my greed, my insignificance in the face of bureaucracy, and my desire to be legitimised by that same bureaucracy. I can see the pomposity of my role within its arcane labyrinth. As academics we have to question the humanities, not defend it. It only flourishes for us when we start chewing on it, squeezing the juice from it – to see what it really tastes like. We have allowed systems of value and processes of codification that are entirely alien to – and which run counter to – our own liberating sceptical purposes, to invade our classrooms, and to colonise our own value systems, in practice, on paper, in meetings, on spreadsheets – in the words and modalities we pass on to our students. We have allowed our ideas to be measured in silver rods. Learning outcomes are golden bowls. What is the precise outcome that any student will get from studying this sonnet in this session, for these two hours? What is the measurable socio-economic impact of your research into ancient origins of the Finno-Ugric languages? What star-rating will I give this journal article on the sexual metaphors of Fanny Burney? How will the economy be boosted by a study of an early nineteenth-century archaeologist in the village of Castor, Cambridgeshire? How does society benefit from yet another book on a parochial peasant poet who died in an asylum in 1864?

These are questions. But just answering such questions, direct, is to risk submission to their logic – to grant them a moral authority over us – an authority that we ourselves have voted in, that we ourselves have had a hand in, that we ourselves have thought through and written down and passed on and overseen. Such questions of value we all feel a guilty urgency to express, before our managers come knocking, or so that we can fill in that grant application, or tick that box in the CV. I have done so myself, innumerable times, and have supervised – even compelled – others in doing the same. I am that foul hydra – an academic and a manager. If not on our chartered corridors, then at least in our subject areas – surely, desperately? – we must allow ideals: in the literary-critical arts we can read them, we can make them up, we can fabricate idealised spaces and utopias of no-space, allow the accident and chance of passion and intrigue and reading in libraries and fickle association to construct possible idea-worlds. Do we do that when we “defend” the humanities? Or are such public defences from the elect essentially admissions of our supine state, and mere echoes of a sad defeat that happened many moons ago?

Want to see a bracing debate about the future of the humanities? £20 please.

Dare we in the sceptical humanities attack the ideologies, the assumptions, the rhetoric and the discourse – that generate the moral logic of the questions themselves – and the questioners? Do we need to dig beneath such questions, or else knock them down, or else leap right over them, to prove the value of what we do, to prove our real “contribution”? We should do so not as a mob, not all in the same “professionalised” direction – but all over the place, from all manner of provocative modes and lifestyles. I don’t want to agree with the other essays on this Palgrave blog. Who would that benefit? I don’t want to be in a club of mutual justification. It is important that we all disagree.

We need to do the business of humanities not by acquiescence to and concurrence with polite professionalised practices, but through dissent and disagreement and disagreeableness. If we feel we have made a “contribution”, we then need to question the nature and purpose of contribution, the system that values it, and our ethics within it. I now must question why it is I need to express it all like this, from my position of arch privilege and socio-economic comfort, sitting here in the secure warmth of the Bodleian library (see – they let me in – and I mention it to impress you!), surrounded by the products of “people like us” (that is, book-writers like me, I want that to be true, I do so want to be in this book club, want my name on one of those hard-wearing spines – but why?).

Why do I have to care? Liberal arts? Codified. Humanities? Roboticised. Your brain? Just a computer. So keen were we academic humanities scholars for the establishment (and its finance gods) to accept our seriousness that we forgot to make up our own rules, or to offer our own metaphors for the way the brain works.

We need to take responsibility for the systems of power to which we submit, and we need to realise that for the most part, while we might benefit from that submission as individuals, we also lose something worth defending as a collective. From this itch of paradox, of bad faith even, and in the refreshing self-knowledge of our compromise and our messiness and our complexity, we must begin our questioning. That’s what the humanities afford.



* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan

About the author

Simon Kövesi is Professor of English Literature, and Head of the Department of English and Modern Languages, at Oxford Brookes University, UK.