What Are the Humanities For?


Patrícia Vieira on Doris Summer's The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanities and Peter Brooks's (ed.) The Humanities and Public Life, in The LA Review of Books:

Peter Brooks’s edited collection The Humanities and Public Life and Doris Sommer’s The Work of Art in the World: Civic Agency and Public Humanitiesoffer spirited defenses of the humanities that attempt to explain why these fields of study matter. Both volumes cogently argue for the significance of the humanities, focusing primarily on their role in public life. Studying philosophical, historical, and artistic works may well make one a better person — or at least more knowledgeable, skilled, or intelligent — but these two books are chiefly concerned with the public benefit of such studies. What is the social function of the humanities? Is there a correlation between reading and ethics? What about between the humanities and human rights? Can the arts empower disenfranchised communities and, if so, in what ways?

Brooks’s volume is based upon the papers given at a symposium he convened at Princeton University. It brings together essays by a group of distinguished scholars from various fields in the humanities, together with a few representatives from the social sciences, to reflect on a series of key issues related to the social function of their research and teaching. The editor’s introduction is followed by Judith Butler’s article “Ordinary, Incredulous,” which, surprisingly enough, is one of the most melancholic pieces in the collection. Going back to Louis Althusser’s concept of ideology, Butler denounces neoliberal anti-intellectualism that substitutes ideologically backed “obviousnesses” for genuine thought. One of these obviousnesses is the compulsion to justify the humanities for their instrumental value, as being useful for economic or political life.

The humanities are precisely the space to consider what value is and to ponder upon different ways of valuating, in other words, to unravel the obviousnesses of ideology.

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