Wednesday, 24 October 2018

What do the humanities do?

Walter Benjamin: 'Homogeneous, empty time'


I remember once using the toilet at the Sussex University library and seeing, in the cubicle, etched onto a toilet paper dispenser, the legend 'Pull here for humanities degrees.' It even had a helpful arrow to the point where the last sheet of loo roll hung just below the plastic of the dispenser. I remember thinking that this was quite funny, not least because I suspected it had been written by a humanities undergraduate (everyone knows scientists have no sense of humour).

Me and my friends spent a lot of time groaning about the perceived excesses of university humanities courses, again because we all knew them firsthand. There was a lot to be frustrated by. For some of us on literature courses, there was the cold shock of being asked to read Althusser's paper on 'Ideological State Apparatuses' in our first term of undergraduate study. For leftists there was the unceasing abstraction of so much theory; for my centrist, liberal friends there was the seemingly uniform left-wing militancy of the faculty staff to rebel against. I was still politically ill-defined and found a kind of deconstructivist, post-nineties common sense quite amenable to my own lack of serious commitment (not that I had read any Derrida). There was a fairly conservative streak in us - probably a result of an extended adolescence - that felt we were being taught to critique the greats before we had actually read them. I'd like to say I was studiously, cultivatedly lazy, but I was just lazy. One of the myths I endorsed to justify this was that there was no real value to what I was studying. I felt, in a vaguely limp, social-democratic way, that the state had to do some unvaluable things, but value-creation was entirely a function of the private sector. Society had been kind enough to invent this useless thing called the humanities, which was patronised by a benevolent state, and into which I could uselessly slot with very little effort.

There was certainly a smugness to what would now be called the 'campus left'. White people with dreads would lecture other students around campfires on the ills of a commodified culture. The bland anti-advertising sloganeering of Adbusters was a popular read among a certain group of middle-class hippy ravers. Those who had been on gap years made less worldly types - people like me - feel unadventurous, petty-bourgeois, and boring. There was a tendency to denounce all the trappings of modern civilisation and advance only an austere environmentalism in its place (save for the excessive amounts of drugs and alcohol). It probably won't be very persuasive, coming from someone now on the organised left, to say that I think the culture of the left has since improved. But the anti-globalisation left had a lot to say about the wrongness of the world and offered little by way of an alternative. Many who felt estranged by this anti-consumerist moralism felt, rightly or wrongly, that academia itself was doing little to correct this misdirected anger.

Then the financial crash happened. With the recession, applications for humanities courses began to drop. Recently the same trend has been showing in students' A-level choices. The pre-recession 'good times' (the age when top up fees only went as high as £3,000 per year) were not to last. I found myself newly graduated and unable to get a job that would give me regular hours. I was unemployed for a while, then got a part-time job in a pub kitchen and wound up deep in an overdraft that a recently bailed out bank set about trying to claw back off me. The Daily Telegraph intoned its approval of a drop in applications to all courses: universities were, the paper said, 'no longer preparing our children for work.' The especially melodramatic tone and vaguely creepy, proprietary language ('our children') aside, various forms of this argument can be found across the contemporary media. One Guardian contributor recently argued for an outright cap on student numbers. Given that in the same article the author (herself an Oxford PPE graduate) accepts the need for more science students, it's pretty clear which student numbers need to fall. Under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government that took power in the wake of the recession and embarked on a seemingly endless programme of austerity cuts and restructuring of the public sector, Education Secretary Michael Gove made a point of going after history teachers who teach World War I 'through the medium of Blackadder.' This rather baffling non-sequitur was more than just a play on the old Tory myth of a malign, lefty culture in schools. It was based on a philosophy that academic navel-gazing - that introspective and critical approaches to culture and history - were inherently a waste of time. The humanities should, the coalition believed, be put in the service of patriotic duty and national memory-making. Still, these reforms did not spring up out of nowhere. 'Those who can't do, teach,' as I was told by various smirking men when I informed them that my mum was a teacher. That culture of usefulness - which defines usefulness exclusively in terms of what the private sector can value at a certain price - that underlies a great deal of spontaneous common sense in the UK would become a strand of the new rigour of the early 2010s. Everyone was supposed to knuckle down, not get any fancy ideas, and just get through it (whatever it was it never seemed to end).

It is quite clear to me that I have internalised some of this. I have just finished a part-time MA but filled much of it reading macroeconomics and political science and learning German in an attempt to validate what I was doing. During my masters I read a book I didn't like very much called The Romantic Economist. The author is Richard Bronk and he sets out to prove to the world that romanticism - the irrational, the passionate, the emotional and idiosyncratic - has some real use to science. But any attempt to redeem the arts and humanities with reference to science has already failed, already accepted its role as second fiddle. In this synthesis, the critique of rationalism becomes the somewhat reticent compliment to the real stuff of hard, scientific inquiry. It is not hard to imagine economists nodding at such a book and promising to store up some of its value and then promptly shelving it. It is like the King's disagreeable, counterintuitive counsel. Examples of this tendency on the part of philosophy, critical theory and the arts are surprisingly common. Exiled members of the Frankfurt School worked for the precursor to the CIA and later helped US authorities define the 'authoritarian personality'. The surrealists and poets of Britain's Mass-Observation project helped in the domestic propaganda effort of World War II. Paul Ricoeur has provided philosophical tutelage to the likes of Emmanuel Macron. This is not to argue that theory would do better to shield itself from the real world, any more than 'practical men' can avoid the haunting of academic scribblers, to paraphrase Keynes.

The error is rather the view that science is theory-free - or value-free- and that its objectivity is not the result of prior theoretical parsing. But what capital wants is a form of thought without theory. It wants to automatize thinking so that it does not acquire the lumpy, human deviations and deformities of thought. That said, in a world where such a tediously unoriginal politician as Emmanuel Macron can be celebrated as 'philosopher and president', one may be led doubt the value of the label at all. None of this is to say, in the parlance of a much-maligned though rarely endorsed 'postmodernism', that there are no such things as empirical facts. Rather, there are facts and there is a complex, irreducible, objective reality. This is precisely why we need theory - contesting theories - to map it. Moreover, there needs to be some philosophy which is independent and non-commodified, not subject to the utilitarianising impetus of profit (no easy feat when Waterstones markets philosophy as 'Smart Thinking').

For a long time there has been an attempt on the part of the hard sciences to prove the phonyism of the arts. The Sokal affair saw a quantum physicist game the academic publishing industry by inserting a nonsense 'deconstruction of quantum gravity' into a respectable journal. More recently, a group of writers embarked on a year-long campaign to insert ridiculous, 'unscientific' articles - with a weirdly obsessive focus on gender studies - into various academic journals. It was widely agreed by papers like the Wall Street Journal that 'something has gone wrong in the humanities.' The unscientific nature of the hoax aside, it is obviously not the case that literary journals should aim for the same kind of rigour as, say, physics journals. Many of the most damning criticisms directed at the social science journals implicated in the hoax were aimed at its shonky grasp of methodology. The likes of sociology may perhaps suffer from a clumsy over-reliance on dubious empirical research methods to validate its theories. However, fudged data and dodgy research are hardly the preserve of gender studies alone. The economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff famously published a paper which claimed to prove that high government debt slowed growth. The paper played an important role in legitimising the austerity turn of the early 2010s. But it turned out that the economists had fudged their numbers. So, the supposed cold, hard science of neoclassical economics - which prizes itself on its combination of mathematical precision, rationality, and consideration of 'real' economic factors - is not without its profoundly damaging methodological and research scandals.

This is not to say that there aren't major issues with academia. How could there not be? Its ongoing privatisation; the individualisation of study and the restriction of public funding sources; the problematic research-competitive funding structure; the opaque process of research candidate selection; the unrepresentative, very middle class, and white character of most academic staff - all are cause for concern. But the idea that academia can be depoliticised by the implementation of more rigorous research standards is a red herring. First of all, it is clearly a category error to insist that philosophical, cultural or historical studies be held to the same statistical and quantitative research standards as other, more 'scientific' disciplines. But even in the hard and soft sciences, things are not as simple as they might seem. Oversight is clearly deeply important to ensure the greatest neutrality in findings. But analysis and indeed motivation will always have a political edge to it. Making such political motives more transparent is important. But perhaps the best way to ensure a fool-proof system is to make readers more aware of what quality research looks like and to teach them to spot concealed political bias.

Critical theory has lately been subject to another, more physical assault. When the far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik slaughtered 69 adults and children on the Norwegian island of Utoya in 2011, he did so in defence of an image of European whiteness and purity which he believed had been sullied by the influence of so-called 'Cultural Marxism'. The latter is supposed to originate from the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, which was home to Jewish Marxist intellectuals throughout the 20th century. Forced to emigrate to the USA by the rise of Nazism, it is believed by many on the contemporary far right that their advocacy of various 'grievances' (class, race, gender, and so on) was so successful that it infected western societies in a way that would eventually bring about their downfall. It takes a very bizarre leap of the imagination to view the hyper-accelerated consumer culture in which we live - and which the Frankfurt School did so much to critique - as a product of their pointedly abstruse, inaccessible theorising. What a great deal of the far right's conspiracy theorising is based around, however, is a desire to revive a certain kind of macho, unrestrained white heroism that has indeed been overtaken by the constant social convulsions of a restless consumer capitalism. Indeed, Adorno's controversial F-Scale for diagnosing authoritarian personality types has found renewed relevance in today's world.

It may not be a leap too far to suggest that the worship of a certain kind of reified scientific discourse is a sublimated desire for renewed authority. This desire is expressed in the form of an image of an all-consuming, all-encompassing, irresistible force of nature. There is, after all, a popular Facebook page called 'I Fucking Love Science' (it currently has 25 million likes). Could there be a clearer demonstration of the libidinal desire for an all-powerful, unchanging natural will than this? Of course, in this context it would never be enough to say, modestly, 'I respect and appreciate the findings of empirical science' (it wouldn't get the likes for a start). Yet, is the fucking doing some specific discursive work here? Enjoyably for a Freudian, the 'I Fucking Love Science' feed is full of stories about farts, fertility, and faeces. There are copious articles about virility, female orgasms, and successful love lives. Yet its hackneyed glimpses of the natural sublime ('We've finally discovered what it's like at the centre of the Earth') are tempered by an awe at human inventiveness ('Watch as NASA cools down a launch platform with 400,000 tonnes of water'). Science then - the weird, amorphous object that unites studies of penis length with the behaviour of pandas, top tips for professional success with energy policy - is the symbolic quilting point (point de capiton in Lacanian psychoanalysis) which coordinates and directs force per se. Force here can be conceived, obviously, as potency, as will, as a romantic kind of consummating energy. Science is, in this popular discourse, the harnessing of natural force through technique. It's like drinking the magic fertility or - perhaps - virility potion; the key to success and the final authority in human and natural life.

I won't be the first to say that there is something proto-fascistic about this fantasmatic desire for untethered natural force, for the pure will. Of course, you may be convinced by this argument or - as is probably the case - you might suspect me of harbouring my own bizarre perversions. But there can be no doubting the existence of 'perversions', of what Freudians call 'libidinal cathexis' (or investment). Indeed, there can be no understanding of politics without over-identifications and over-determinations, both of which point to a certain interpretive complexity. While evidence for such types of libidinal investments can be captured in statistics, in quantitative as well as qualitative research, they are not simply there. There is a necessary degree of theorisation involved in explicating them that is not the case (for most people) in identifying the presence of an unworn, discarded shoe on the landing floor. The multiple determinations of a particular social phenomenon - by brute materiality, but also by discourse, by unconscious desire, and by reflexive knowledge - come into view here. Value neutrality in the sciences - the claim that facts can be used to test deductive theories and disprove them in a way that does not generate truth claims or involve political motives - is a false idol. There may of course be certain kinds of scientific discourse that exist in a less immediate relationship to the political than, say, sociology or economics. The point, however, is that proximity to the political does not necessarily deligitimise a scientific argument. This is not a call to abandon rigorous research methods in cases where they are appropriate. I am simply saying that an acknowledgement of the always-political character and implications of research can bolster reliability rather than detract from it. Or, to the extent that politics is excluded from research, this gesture is acknowledged for what it is: a simplifying assumption to allow for certain things to be measured and not others.

One of the best things about critical theory is its power to unveil in a new light social things that were previously taken for granted. Memory is one such thing. Perhaps the most widely-read and celebrated of 20th century critical theorists was Walter Benjamin. So we'll take one of Benjamin's own reflections on memory from his autobiographical sketch Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (Berlin Childhood around 1900). This deeply melancholic reflection on a German-Jewish diasporic youth - irretrievably lost through the destructive rise of Nazism - puts into action Benjamin's philosophical belief that the past could contain the seed of the salvation (Erlösung) of the present. For all the coddling, bourgeois comforts of Benjamin's childhood, it is clear that the loss of prosperity is more than just a material loss. Instead it is the loss of a specific wellspring of familial strength. Benjamin may have been locked in a permanent Freudian war with his prosperous, bourgeois father, yet it is clear that his memoirs are a way of maintaining a not uncritical relation to this vanquished past. In the process, Benjamin sketches a social function of memory. In the occasional, careful detail, Benjamin's memories elaborate the social trappings of the German-Jewish bourgeoisie and the political complacency which allowed it to ignore the rumblings of fascism.

In one vignette we find Benjamin at the age of eight or nine playing in the wilderness of the garden at his family's summer house as one of his maids stands at the gate (eins unserer Mädchen steht noch eine Weile am Gittertor). This static, dreamlike image of the maid - no doubt a servant transported from Berlin to the family's Babelsberg retreat - is cut through with another, even earlier memory, this time of an actual dream. Benjamin had kept the past night's dream secret (geheimnis) all day, perhaps because of the vaguely scandalous content. In the dream a ghostly apparition (ein Gespenst) had appeared in front of him and had stood before an altered version of a corner of the room in which his parents slept. The corner was transfigured from its usual brightness into one of immeasurable darkness and sinister energy. The ghost had found its way to the place where his mother stored a profusion of knick-knacks and minor treasures - an array of silks and fancy dresses and jewellery - and was stealing them. Benjamin, it must be said, was quite obsessed with such objects. They held for him a weird power to unlock the past. Vanquished commodities revealed an image of what people had fleetingly loved and discarded. The meaning of the dream is only revealed the following night. Then, his parents come into his room in order to avoid a many-headed gang (eine vielköpfige Verbrecherbande) that is now robbing the house for real. The house was stripped. The vignette ends with Benjamin implying that the working-class servant girl had let the marauders into the house, while he is left with a sense that his secret damned his family to the robbery.

Benjamin believed that the meaning of the past could sometimes only be revealed by its encounter with the present, or in other words that the significance of past events was not in the events themselves but in their recollection. He argued against a concept of history based on 'homogeneous and empty time' (homogene und leere Zeit) and for one that was fulfilled in the 'here and now' (Jetztzeit). Recovering the past for the purposes of the present was like a 'tiger leap' (Tigersprung) into the past. In the vignettes of his childhood memoirs, Benjamin exercises a series of memory-shifts in order to uncover the past: there are, existing in seeming simultaneity, the evening games outside the summer house; the dream of the ghost; the night of the robbery; and the morning after, all presented at once. And running through it we have the various mysteries of the family's precious objects - the lost commodities - which are now no longer recoverable. If it was Benjamin's ambition to recover the past for the services of the present, that which is unrecoverable - the family's wealth and comfort of the pre-War era - becomes particularly painful. Lurking in the story is the reality of social class, the frail security of commercial wealth, and the looming spectre of a present in which Jewish property could be legally ransacked. This partial recovery of the objects of bourgeois social life - the silks and other trinkets stolen by night - serves as a reminder of the way in which capitalist society gives and takes away with equal speed. What emerges is a world that seems at once secure and permanent - the complacent world of a childhood lived in bourgeois comfort - and terribly transient.

The concept of homogeneous, empty time implies, as if often said, a certain kind of bourgeois linearity. In the context of a text that is partly a critique of progress (Fortschritt) as a destructive force that obliterates the past, it could seem that this is merely a critique of the way in which events are chronologically ordered by Whiggish history. But this is not a Heideggerian elegy for man's thrownness (Dasein) into the world or his alienation from his real being. Rather, a concept of homogeneous, empty time implies not succession but synchronicity in space. It is as if, from the perspective of bourgeois society and bourgeois science specifically, time becomes analogous to space. This is a concept of time that lacks historicity - historical value - at all. In this concept of time, any event could feasibly have taken place at any moment. Each moment is exchangeable for another since in the end the determining factor in human behaviour is not history but nature. Think, for example, of the static equilibria - adapted from an outmoded 19th century physics - of neoclassical economics. In these models, quantitative factors (prices) determine that over the course of time, things will revert to how they were. The market will clear. Prices will adjust to a new set of signals. It is no surprise, then, that the models deployed in neoclassical economics - the IS-LM graph, the Phillips Curve - are spatial rather than temporal models. They represent back and forth shifts in quantities rather than trends over time. What Benjamin is trying to redeem (erlösen) is the singularity of the past, its unrecoverability. In the fact that what happened then could not in fact happen again now, Benjamin offers us a stark reminder that society cannot be reduced to the scientific world of abstract models and behaviour patterns. By recalling the qualitative difference of the past, a qualitatively different - and better - future becomes imaginable.

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