As students of contemporary technology will tell you, we are already in a historical time, perhaps for the first time in the history of humanity, where people cannot keep up with technological advancement, and the trend will continue. Technology is already exceeding human adaptability, and the gap will keep growing. We have not seen much yet, compared to what is coming. And yet we have seen enough already. But this means most of us will become roadkill if we have not yet become that. This is in some ways an opening premise of Thomas Friedman’s Thank You for Being Late. An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations (Picador 2020). I have only started reading the book, so I do not know where Friedman wants to take us. What follows are reflections that result from a Facebook discussion, which I may supplement with other considerations as I make progress in Friedman’s book.
The problem then is to have legions of roadkill zombies organizing not just our education and the education of our children, but also our politics and our labor relations and our everyday life for us, through procedures we are becoming quite familiar with: an absolute disconnect between claims and the real, a thorough falsification of the commons, delusions and ideology ruling our lives everywhere. I do not think there are any easy solutions to this but do believe if the humanities do not help out, by trying somehow to assuage the gap between technical innovation and human adaptability, we are irretrievably screwed. But the humanities are still looking the other way, hence increasingly populated by what Friedman calls roadkill with a chip on their shoulders. Take a minor but symptomatic example: most humanities courses in the North American university are a repetition of the courses that were taught in the 1980s and 1990s, and very little has changed. But this is precisely the reason why students have turned away from us. Is it not high time to have a serious conversation about this? Could we do it, or is the very conversation already too difficult or impossible?
Are the humanities capable of innovation in thinking, can they help contemporary humanity understand their predicament in the face of technological change, market globalization, and climate change, or are they condemned to repeat themselves from parameters that come from a tradition and a world that has largely been left behind, for better or for worse, but for real in any case? One would want to respond that yes, the humanities can do it. I think the humanities can do it, but I am not so sure present-day humanists can do it. I am not such an optimist. I have reasons to believe humanists today are largely out of touch with the real world and much prefer to have their heads comfortably stuck up their backsides.
My precarious intuition, since I have no massive empirical data on it: the humanities today are by and large, with minor modifications, in the position of my one-time colleague, a graduate of some prominent university in the late 1970s, who still thinks Wayne Booth, Russian formalism, and Reader-Response is the way to go—the fellow had simply stopped growing intellectually when he graduated, and forty years later he was still using his old dog-eared notes on yellowing paper to continue to teach his classes. Students could only be dumbfounded, I doubt they would have thought it was charming. But the same is true of course for those who think their alleged courageous political commitment to various identity causes, to which they woke in the 1990’s, is enough to justify their careers. And one wonders about the rest: those are the very people who prefer to use their social media to issue conventional opinions and would reject any substantive discussion, for instance: the so-called intellectuals who no longer bother to read much, and prefer rereading at most. And the thing is: they are still proud of themselves, think there is nothing wrong, their real work, I suppose, happens when they prepare an article for PMLA. Except that very few people are now preparing articles for PMLA. That is not where things are, as everybody knows, if it ever was.
I think the humanities should assume this task of radical innovation, which can and should probably be seen as no more than a necessary massive updating of presuppositions, but the difficulties are immense, given our own inertia and all kinds of embedded resistance. Now, these two latter things, given the simultaneous recognition of the crisis of the humanities, about which nobody does anything at all, can be summed up in one word: incompetence. Or two words: hopeless incompetence. And notice this: I can only have this conversation on Facebook or in the blog–I already know posting this on the blog will bring at most a hundred readers, and no discussion, or barely any. If I attempted to have it in my own institution, provided I were allowed to do it, it would mean that my head, toward which I still feel some residual love, would be put on the chopping block. And of course I think that is beyond pathetic, because I am fairly certain that the folks in Engineering or Business do not enjoy the same limitations. But let us attempt to imagine what it would take. Just two ideas to start with:
Firstly, we need a fundamental revision of our majors and our doctoral programs, most of which are obsolete and worse. Nothing less than a new kind of education in the humanities is needed. More on this below.
And then, second thing, we would have to reinvent the parameters under which professional advancement in our fields is granted: i think we have had enough of the little paper-producing industry we have laboriously loved for several generations, I think the parameters for tenure are hopelessly anachronistic and useless, and I think the issue of “publishing in adequate venues” is as stilted as seventeenth-century wigs for males. Nobody reads journal articles as journal articles any more, and hardly any books from their own professional field: at best they read them because someone posts a PDF of them on Facebook or Twitter, normally the author, for her or his own circle of friends. Or in Academia.edu. This reinforces a cycle of intellectual narcissism probably never seen before in the history of the humanities.
It is a matter of survival, and not our survival, but rather the survival of a mode of thought not based on endless technical acceleration and quantifiable h-indexes for licking everybody’s asses (quotations: normally used today to enhance one’s own status, to secure others’ quotations of oneself, given the race for quotations as a measure of impact our own universities have set us up for, on the management model of the flea circus or perhaps the ant farm). Or we could just move out of the university, easy for some of us to say, since we are already eligible for social security checks. But there is a future for others, it simply cannot be based on publishing seven articles on Don Quixote or exploring the affective investments in José Eustasio Rivera’s interesting but somewhat mediocre famous novel. Can we facilitate that future, pointing the way to it, or do we do it by continuing to ruin our present, and see what the children come up with?
The world has changed, and it is useless to dwell on whether the change has been for the better or the worse. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that students have urgencies we did not have and dismiss the urgencies we did have. Trying to impose ourselves on them, rather than learning about their urgencies, is a losing game, but the ones who lose the most are precisely the students. I think the experience of pandemic confinement will have had some positive uses for all of us. I just hope they are not squandered if and when there is a return to so-called normality.
Regarding fundamental curricular revisions, let us grab the bull by the horns. Our distribution in the academic humanities is obsolete, which means we should move toward a liquidation of the disciplines as they are for the sake of new inventions. Which does not mean liquidating the need to know and explore the historical archive. But the historical archive in Spanish, say, is no longer a priority, as it may have been at times of nation-state hegemony, of national citizenship as first allegiance, and so forth. What I am proposing is not so far-fetched. For instance, we have a PhD program called something like “Multidisciplinary PhD Program in Hispanic Studies.” Let us replace it with something called “Multidisciplinary PhD Program in the Humanities.” Let us give up on field-coverage and area expertise, which really has done nothing for intellectual life in the last fifty years. Let us imagine a new education with new questions and new thought produced in the way of provisional answers. Let us concentrate on what people need to learn in order to face the chaos of their lives.
Forgive me for the autobiographical note here, but I think we all speak from our own life experience, and I want to make mine visible. There may have been a time in which, to respond to the chaos of my life, I needed to know what Unamuno and Baroja had said. Or what the criollista novelists were proposing to the nation. When it may have been useful personally to know how Clarice Lispector understood female lives in the Brazil of her time. When taking stock of pre-Boom writers could have helped me take on and reflect on varieties of a form of life necessary for my own. I do not think we are any longer there, but in any case: I certainly believe our undergraduates are not there at all, and do not need any of that. It doesn´t mean Baroja, or the rest, are not worth reading. But they must be read, if they must, from a different set of questions, new configurations of thought that “the discipline” is not only not promoting but is actively stifling. With a vengeance.
Yes, I thought at the time that it was just not possible or relevant to think except within your own language’s archive. Which is why I abandoned philosophy in favor of literature, since philosophy in Spanish was just not worth bothering about. It is of course one of my fundamental life mistakes. Equivalent to an American thinking he could only think out of American literature or American thought traditions. Preposterous, if you think about it. And maybe a residue of either Francoism or anti-Francoism, which came to the same thing here.
For our own students, the operative word is “think.” They do not need a national archive, unless they want to make a hobby of it. But no national archive can today sustain an intellectual life not buried in the sand. This is one of the consequences of the very real market globalization.
By the time I finished my seven-year-long doctoral training in the late 1980s, I had read most everything relevant in the Spanish archive. Including Fray Gerundio de Campazas and Diego de Torres Villarroel. And I came to think that rereading it to comment on it as a career was somehow less than attractive. It was because I actually was unsatisfied that I became a Latin Americanist–there were things in the Latin American archive I had not yet read, so at least that would keep me curious. But all of that was part of my original and fateful mistake, which was precisely to think that an archive, any given archive, could give me the thinking resources I might need. So I kept going from one place to another: middle ages, renaissance, contemporary novel, Golden Age theatre, chronicles, etc., finding compensations here and there, of course, but keeping at a fundamental distance from most of it. With some sustaining exceptions– Libro de Buen Amor, La Celestina, Cervantes, Borges, Valente, some of the classical poetry, Goytisolo. I kept trying, not understanding that the very nature of the questions I was asking should have made me move away a lot earlier than I finally did from most of it, already in my late forties. But I am not bragging about anything. I did what a good student of the discipline would have done (I have always been a good student) and paid the price most paid. Until I felt I had had enough, and switched gears and went through the normal difficulties of it. But I would not put myself as an example of anything. I have never insisted, though, that my approach—i.e., my mistakes, which may have included some partial virtues–should be replicated by my students’. That tendency of mine is today more extreme, in the sense that I think my students should not even be asking the questions I was asking at their age. The questions today should be quite different, and I think they are being asked, but no longer in the humanities. Or only marginally.
I would say that there is a crisis of thought in the disciplines, certainly in Latin American Studies. Would not want to guess whether that is also the case for, say, African Studies, or Latinx Studies (but I would not be surprised.) There is, however, no crisis of thought, in the sense that there are plenty of absolutely necessary issues to think about. I suppose the claim I am making is that it is no longer possible to think about those issues from constrained institutional spaces, and particularly from constrained institutional spaces that are and have always been overdetermined in their limitations for a variety of reasons. Say, in the 1990s the mirage of Latin American Cultural Studies created a path that enabled some of us to step away from literary hermeneutics, which had become a dead space for me. But that did not last long. And then what?
The point is not to say that people should stop doing what they love, if they love it. It is rather to say that we have an obligation and a responsibility to save reflection in the humanities from our own boredom in order to be open to conditions of existence today, which are no longer comparable to those we had up until the 1990s, for instance. Dramatic changes in the last twenty years in particular have made most of our arrangements and presuppositions obsolete.