Monday, September 28, 2015

The humanities post-humanism

Here's some cultural pessimism from Alexander Jacobs in the Chronicle:
After a fashion, then, the austerians, greed-heads, and STEM geeks are right. The humanities are a luxury. They are the sort of activity humans undertake when their waking lives are no longer consumed exclusively with the struggle to secure some kind of future for themselves and their families. That is, they are an expression of civilization.
As the American social compact decays and individual futures become more uncertain, our thoughts naturally turn away from questions of how we ought to live or what we ought to believe, and toward questions of how we can pay for medicine or guard against poverty in old age. That only makes sense. The humanities are objectively less important today than they were 50 years ago, but that is because we have chosen to be uncivilized, and the uncivilized simply have no time for Simone de Beauvoir or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In a world of 401(k)’s, health-insurance "marketplaces," income volatility, and part-time work, we can defend the humanities until we are blue in the face. None of it matters. We cannot hope to engineer an affection for culture in the absence of real material security. Americans will find the study of old books and big ideas worth their time and money only when they decide to tame the power of business and when social life becomes more easily navigable for ordinary people.
In Jacobs's view, humanist pursuits are the product of civilization, and current cultural trends are distinctly uncivilized. By 'civilization', Jacobs means the kind of polity in which a public sphere is supported and which supports its people through distributing risk. Instead, Jacobs contends, we live in a world in which securing one's future is entirely a personal matter, and (we should note) extreme efforts in that direction can be thwarted by bad luck or bad actors or both. In a world with at least economic war of all against all, life is at the very least brutish.

Though Jacobs doesn't extend his analysis further, similar to the humanities and indeed the arts, the sciences also requires an investment from a culture willing to support it, which gives us grounds to worry about their future as well.

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