Thursday, December 01, 2005

I’m still struck by the degree to which the humanities have been overtaken by the ghetto sensibility of the hard sciences. If I didn’t know better I’d blame it on Sputnik and leave it at that.

A nominally intelligent but well trained chemist can be a “productive” scientist, engaged in research, if not leading it. That’s not so simple in the humanities, where originality is the point. 50 years ago it would have been enough to have a Ph.D in English Lit and teach. But these days people pretend the rules have changed. I’m in favor of anything that limits the number of publications from mediocre but desperate minds with advanced degrees.

Science knows no qualitative idea of craftmanship. There is no ‘added value,’ to number, none of any moral or philosophical meaning or use. Taste is meaningless pleasure gone nicy-nice

Other people, and I’m one, value the articulate description of things because description is the only way know the world. Perception without description, asocial, is inarticulate emptiness, and what is social, intersubjective, gets sloppy. Art, as opposed to science, is description before prescription: always tentative. Good literature therefore is the literature of specifics, not ideas; just as a lawyer defends her client first, and professional ethics take precedence for her over abstract morality and ‘truth’. Her tradecraft comes first. Craft allows us to concentrate not on what we want to think but how we do so. An appreciation of the result need not devolve into irrationalism any more than logic need devolve into pedantry, but the last century had plenty of both.

It doesn’t bother me that TS Eliot was an anti Semitic reactionary, not because his poetic genius makes such things irrelevant but because he described so well what it was to be in his position: modern and anti-modern; American and European (and anti-American); arrogant and weak; confused and confident; impotent, or fearful of it; a brilliantly articulate closeted twirp. If the ideas are contradictory it doesn’t matter. I don’t read Eliot for the ideas that ‘belong to him’ but for the ideas in the work itself. And they’re not the same thing.

When engineering is no longer the template for intellectual study in the humanities, the academy will become an interesting place again. The upside is that Intellectual life outside the academy is much more interesting than it used to be.


No comments: