Beyond the Beyond
It has become a cliché or perhaps even a self-fulfilling prophecy to state that the humanities are facing a crisis. According to Wayne Bivens-Tatum, librarian at Princeton University, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that there has actually been a sense of crisis for nearly as long as there have been departments of humanities. Moreover, the presumed causes are equally old and tenacious. The humanities are, in other words, always in crisis. What seems to be making the present-day situation different, however, is the fact that the crisis in the humanities coincides with a global crisis in finance and politics, hence causing a so-called ‘gloom of melancholia’ amongst scholars.
Perhaps the lapse into cynicism should indeed readily and rightly be equated with simply choosing the line of least resistance, as a Dutch columnist once stated. Yet but melancholy is certainly a legitimate response to a pervasive atmosphere of disillusionment, unease and insecurity. After all, as Rosi Braidotti argues, the spirit of the present age is informed by a discourse about the end of all possible ideologies. She explains that advanced capitalism, which appeared to be the inevitable logic to the history of humanity after everything else was perceived to be either impossible, dangerous or doomed to fail, is precisely considered to have caused today’s crisis, thus narrowing down the horizon of possibilities to virtually nothing. Braidotti, founding director of the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University, strongly believes that the sense of being unable to ‘reconstruct the future’ by changing the existing state of affairs is the key to understanding the notion of melancholia that pervades scholarly thinking. In answer to the question if there is still a way out, she asserts the necessity of reshaping and radicalizing the humanities by opening them up to the world outside of academia.
Discussing the future of museums, Elizabeth Merritt similarly advances the thesis that institutions are required to counter the challenges of the third millennium so as to benefit from the emerging structural shifts as well as to avoid the harms of inaction. Responding to external trends may require actions that – to loosely paraphrase Merritt – are clearly detached from the humanities’ commitment to an age-old tradition, yet it would be rather careless to assume that someone else will struggle with the consequences of the current developments. Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University, Cathy Davidson makes an equally scathing remark about the outlook for the humanities, when she claims that their obsolescence is already built into the future they are disregarding merely by stagnating and remaining reluctant to change. Furthermore, since melancholy, inertia and cynicism prevent all forms of imaginative, energetic and creative vigour, Davidson pleas for action by means of bridging the gap between thinking and doing, which seems to align with Braidotti’s call for ‘activism through theory’. Endorsing the viewpoint that the many voices of the humanities, which are indeed firmly rooted in a longstanding tradition, should not be permitted to soften to a feeble, hesitating murmur from the past amidst the clamour of economic, technological and socio-political change, both professors make perfectly clear that the endeavor to rethink or reconstruct historical patterns should above all be understood as a deed of love for the future.
Allowing scholars to break through the inertia of collective melancholia by providing them with – as Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker aptly put it – a concept of ‘informed naivety’, the proposed reorientation on the future requires the humanities to move beyond themselves in order to reinvent themselves, while simultaneously calling forth – to use the words of Simon O‘Sullivan – ‘a people-yet-to-come who in some senses are already here’. Moving beyond the humanities, however, is obviously not tantamount to disavowing their importance. According to Bruce Sterling, they should rather be relocated at a crossroads:
Taking a next step in order to move along implies a sense of direction and the ability to orientate oneself on the newly drawn map of the future. Therefore, rather than walking blindfolded and backwards into unknown territory, the humanities should open their eyes, look around and perhaps even take the lead by seizing the chance to draw the map themselves.
Andrea Petõ (2009), Rosi Braidotti. Romania: Prima TV Productions (DVD, 110 mins.)