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Room for interpretation

In Profession 2005, a publication of the Modern Language Association, Harvard English professor Louis Menand writes the following in response to an article about string theory that conotates the universe to a bank card:

If you say that the meaning of a poem is indeterminate, you are accused of posing a threat to Western values--often by people who never read poetry. But if you say that the universe is like an ATM card, you get the Nobel Prize. How did humanists get painted into a cultural corner such that everything that a social or natural scientist says that is counterintuitive receives public genuflection, but literature professors are expected to do nothing but reaffirm common sense? ("Dangers Within and Without" 10-11)


and

Faculty members in science and in social science departments tend to regard humanists as reflexively oppositional to what they do and, therefore, as easy to discount. This perception is founded mainly on ignorance. The summaries of the state of ideas in the humanities in books like E.O. Wilson's Consilence and Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate are appallingly misinformed, but the ignorance is depressing, since it indicates that humanists have almost completely failed at explaining what they do and why it offers as good a return on social investment as genetics or economics. Humanists feed this perception by reciting predicatable critiques of the claims of science and social science. Our response to anything is, "It's more complicated." They assert X, and we say, "But it's overdetermined." They assert Y, and we say, "But there's a contradiction." They assert Z, and we say, "But the concept is socially constructed or historically contested." Humanities departments have turned into the little boy who cries, "Difference!" Humanities professors are right: there is difference, it always is more complicated, concepts are constructed. But the role of the humanities cannot be that of problematizing this and calling into question that. Humanities professors need to construct alternative paradigms, and if those paradigms are built merely from some notion of the literary, they will blow right over. (13-14)


and

The humanities are the study of life in its cultural dimension, which happens to be the dimension in which every human being actually operates. You can study life in its biological and in its social scientific dimension--that is, you can look at the genetic causes of behavior or at the mehtods by which individuals calculate their political and economic interests--only if you hold culture constant. Culture is no an add-on to the biological and sociological conditions of existence; it is constitutive of species identity. Culture is the medium in which we act, and it is, from a purely rational point of view, always a distorting medium. Culture is why paradigms of social and scientific theory don't work, why people tend never to do what social theory predicts they will do. Kant once said that humanity is a crooked timber from which nothing straight can be cut. That's what humanists study. We study warp. (14-15.)



In the end evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins consider human culture as simply and outgrowth of evolutionary needs. Religion for Dawkins (as he states in the God Delusion) is simply an aberration of some behavior that allows for the species to procreate. He is uncertain what that behavior is, but that's how he sees the world. It is not a far stretch to extend his interpretation of religion to all things cultural. They are all aberrations of, to be blunt, getting laid and having lots of babies. This reductive approach to the world, is what turns people off to science, as we can see in Menand's remarks. Ultimately people, when put under the microscope, squirm and say "but that's not me."

Perhaps that is the heart of the conflict between Humanities and Science: one field wishes to explore the rich complexity of human existence and the other wants to reduce it to data with little chance for misinterpretation in hard and fast theory.

Ah, if it were really that easy. Whoops--there we humanities dupes go again!

Menand, Louis. "Dangers Within and Without." Profession 2005. Ed. Rosemary G. Feal. New York: Modern Language Association, 2005.

Comments

  1. Cool new site. Love that it is underwater. Wish I could live life underwater. Will this site help me do that? Time will tell.

    Love that comment from Menand--"How did humanists get painted into a cultural corner such that everything that a social or natural scientist says that is counterintuitive receives public genuflection, but literature professors are expected to do nothing but reaffirm common sense?"

    Thank you for saying that, Professor Louis.

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  2. I'm considering the idea of indeterminacy (of poetry) being a "threat to Western values." This seems very strange to me. Have we become so arrogant and/or ignorant as to find indeterminacy a real threat? To what? Our omniscience? Have we been so duped by the (ongoing) Cartesian project?

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  3. JT: it particularly troubles me since Science it self (writ large and captialized) is about indeterminacy in many ways. Yes it attempts to limit indeterminacy, but it realizes that its means of observation are eventually going to get in the way of "seeing." I don't get this new absolutism.

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  4. I think the intdeterminacy of scientism ultimatly becomes determinism, which, if I'm not missing the mark, is part and parcel of the whole paradigm :) I wish sometimes that I could live underwater too...

    ReplyDelete

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