What do we (English, the humanities) do?

The oft-cited crisis in the humanities of the past decades and the turn toward things like cognition, neuroscience, or the digital humanities generally are topics that everyone seems to have an opinion on. I realize that my ramblings here will be just another one of those opinions, but as a young, inexperienced scholar of the digital and the new (for now) I would be remiss to not deal with these topics in some way. The CFP we looked at this week seemed to be onto something when it, in true humanities fashion, wrote the following in a paragraph-long sentence of jargonese: “This will include exploring the extent to which discourses engendering neuroscience in fact do match neuroscience’s real world (social) effects; but it will also include interrogating the anatomy of the neuro-discourses themselves. . .” (it goes on at length from there). What stands out to me here is the focus on “discourses” and “interrogating”–in other words, on what is said and how it matches with what is done.

What seems to be the crux of much of these discussions is this: what do the humanities do, or what should they do? We often talk about how the humanities make the world a better, richer, more aesthetic, etc. place, but does this ever amount to more than rhetoric? To take it in another direction, I recall in my undergraduate years when one of my professor’s commented to me (this is a bit of a paraphrase), “English is always borrowing from other disciplines because it has no territory of its own”. This comment may seem a bit reductive, but it has always stuck with me because it bothered me so much. Why do we in English always need outside insight to do what we do? You’ll noticed I’ve slipped into talking about English rather than the humanities more generally–let’s take it as something of a case study close to home.

What I suggest, and here I’m drawing on (always speaking through others) Derrida’s 1984 essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, is that we in English do discourse and the texts of all sorts through which it operates. What this means in practice, however, is that we do not do anything save through talking about how, where, when, and why other things are done. This isn’t a knock against us English folks, that is unless the how, where, when, and why things are said and done don’t matter. And here we arrive at something invaluable about the field of English–it reminds us that these things do matter.

To bring it back to current topics with cognition, neuroscience, and the digital humanities, it seems crucial that we always ask ourselves what these things do, and how. These trends have become very popular, and as such they must bear both great potential and great discernment. We shouldn’t do these things just because they are popular, or trendy, or even because they can “save” the humanities. We should do them because they are meaningful–because they offer something new to our pursuit of discourse. In doing so, they also alter fields supposedly distince from the humanities too, including science. As Cohen writes in “Next Big Thing in English”: “The road between the two cultures — science and literature — can go both ways”. Not only can it, it must. It isn’t that science somehow legitimizes what we do in English, as though discourse generally needs science (itself a discourse) to operate. It is that we, if we are honest in our work, traffic in discourses and texts of all types. That is what we do.

Maybe Kristin Chenoweth can help a bit here. Mostly I just want to link a song from Wicked.


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