Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cultural relativism

May I just say that I agree with, pretty much, every word of this?

I'm very interested in the humanities, particularly archaeology, which is my profession. But I have no interest in TV game shows, even though I know that they're extremely popular. Why is that?

A cultural idealist will reply that it's because I have good taste: historical humanities are inherently and objectively more interesting and worthwhile than TV game shows. But I'm no cultural idealist. I'm a cultural and aesthetic relativist. This means that I acknowledge no objective standards for the evaluation of works of art. There are no definitive aesthetic judgements, there is only reception history. There is no objective way of deciding whether Elvis Presley is better than Swedish Elvis impersonator Eilert Pilarm. It is possible, and in fact rather common, to prefer Lady Gaga to Johann Sebastian Bach. De gustibus non est disputandum.

This means that I can't say that it would be better if everyone who likes football took up historical humanities instead. Both football and historical humanities are fun and of no practical use. Which one we choose is a matter of individual character and subcultural background.

This is important. We do a lot of what we do because of our subcultural background, which is largely composed of class background. I am a second-generation academic from the middle class. I do middle class things such as reading novels, skiing on the golf course in the winters, writing essays like this and studying historical humanities. If my parents had been workers, then I would most likely have been doing quite different things. And that would have been fine too. One thing is as good as another provided that it is fun.


There are those who claim that the historical humanities fill an important purpose in reinforcing democracy. Sometimes their rhetoric suggests that the main task of the humanities is indeed to keep people from becoming Nazis and repeating the Holocaust. To those who claim this ability for our disciplines, I can only say "Show me the evidence". There is in fact nothing about the humanities that automatically makes its results politically palatable. The non-humanities people I know are equally good liberals as the humanities majors. Actually, the most brown-shirted individual I have ever spoken to was an archaeology post-grad for a while in the 90s.

In the invitation to the seminar, we were warned about "heritage populism without reflection or depth". But in my experience, many of the taxpayers who fund us actually really want to enjoy the cultural heritage in a populist manner without any great reflection or depth. They understand that Late Medieval murals painter Albertus Pictor and Conan the Barbarian are not the same kind of character. But they consume stories about both for the same reason: for enjoyment's sake. This means that it's our job to make humanistic knowledge available on all levels and to meet every member of the audience where they stand. Our task, unlike that of historical novelists, is to tell true stories - that also have to be exciting and fun. Because there really is no practical use to the humanities. And an activity that is neither useful nor fun has no value whatsoever.

"... culture and heritage suffer under a utilitarian economical mode of thought that focuses on which museums, heritages [this probably refers to archaeological sites], interpretations and blogs can attract the most visitors. Such a bestsellerism can give rise to trivialised and unreflected messages." (from the invitation)

"Does the heritage sector flatten perspectives by presenting the heritage in a simple, measurable and manageable package?" (from the invitation)

This suggests a kind of punk-rock attitude where a defiant humanities scholar says "I'm not gonna provide anything measurable or manageable or trivial or popular!" And sure, that is up to the individual. But if we are to expect a monthly salary from the taxpayers, then I think we will have to accept that they want to be able to measure and manage our product. How else are they supposed to know if it's worth it to continue paying our salaries? And they want us to produce stuff that, within the realm of solid real-world humanities scholarship, is at least as much fun as a TV game show or Conan the Barbarian.

That said, I also like this part of Clifford James' post on the Greater Humanities:

The Greater Humanities are 1) interpretive 2) realist 3) historical 4) ethico-political.
  1. Interpretive. (read textual and philological, in broad, more than just literary, senses) Interpretive, not positivist. Interested in rigorous, but always provisional and perspectival, explanations, not replicable causes.
  2. Realist. (not “objective”) Realism in the Greater Humanities is concerned with the narrative, figural, and empirical construction of textured, non-reductive, multi-scaled representations of social, cultural, and psychological phenomena. These are serious representations that are necessarily partial and contestable…
  3. Historical. (not evolutionist, at least not in a teleological sense) The knowledge is historical because it recognizes the simultaneously temporal and spatial (the chronotopic) specificity of…well… everything. It’s evolutionist perhaps in a Darwinian sense: a rigorous grappling with developing temporalities, everything constantly made and unmade in determinate, material situations, but developing without any guaranteed direction.
  4. Ethico-political. (never stopping with an instrumental or technical bottom line…) It’s never enough to say that something must be true because it works or because people want or need it. Where does it work? For whom? At whose expense? Contextualizing always involves constitutive “outsides” that come back to haunt us– effects of power.
Of course, there's always a tension between being interpretative and not prone to explanations with "replicable causes" with being able to get funding.  But that's another topic for another day.

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