A bubble in the humanities?

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2009

Philip Gerrans argues that there is a bubble in the humanities, and that all kinds of people are holding stock at an artificially inflated value, often on the advice of people who have a vested interested. (h/t Darius Jedburgh)

{ 28 comments }

1

John Emerson 09.27.09 at 12:32 pm

Everything’s cool. I have explained things to them.

2

DivGuy 09.27.09 at 1:02 pm

Apparently studies of “feminist theology” are ipso facto bullshit. I have no idea what the problem there is – does he believe with the New Atheists that “theology” is pointless? Is he arguing that feminism is not a topic worthy of study? Or does some alchemy happen when you put the two together?

Setting that aside, what’s the argument?

None of this would matter if the market were basically self-correcting like the science market, or erratic but brutally self-correcting like the financial markets. When people do not write directly about the world, it is hard to compare what they say against the world. So the main corrective mechanism in the humanities is reputation built on publication and, since publication is often based on reputation, the danger of a bubble is extreme.

So, because, in this definition, the humanities involve mostly writing about what other people have written about, and thus not about “the real world”, bubbles are reasonably likely as the humanities have, theoretically, a less effective correcting mechanism. It’s a little funny that an argument which privileges “real world” facts as correctors doesn’t actually cite any real world facts to show that the relationship he alleges exists – have there been more or fewer “bubbles” in the fields more or less connected to the “real world”?

But, from a theoretical perspective, at least, Gerrans has articulated some reasonable causes for concern in any field of study which studies studies. These concerns would apply mutatis mutandis to Maximus the Confessor, GWF Hegel, and Lionel Trilling. So, is there a reason to think there’s a bubble happening now?

At this point, the argument simply becomes a matter of mentioning names and terms associated with “Theory”. Zizek, Deleuze, Agamben, Spivak. I have no brief for them – well, maybe Spivak, a little – but it certainly seems that if someone were to locate himself as the defender of truth and reason and “real world” argument, his argument would need to consist of more than sneering as he says people’s names.

3

Yarrow 09.27.09 at 1:10 pm

Taking the author at face value, we should judge the worth of this piece by the truth or falsity of its one testable claim: that “[a]lmost every grant application in the humanities mentions these three topics” (which are: “the nature of terrorism or globalisation or the influence of the internet”).

O wise grant writers and reviewers of Crooked Timber: really? Almost every grant application? To me that implies somewhere north of 95%, but I suppose one could drag it down to 75% and still defend the statement, or to 51% and pass it off as justifiable hyperbole.

4

DivGuy 09.27.09 at 1:13 pm

Just to quote:

This is OK for those who profit in a bull market, but there are students who have shelled out good money to write a thesis on Deleuzian social work, feminist theology or (let’s be even-handed here) brain-imaging studies of criminal intent.

There’s no mention of feminism or theology anywhere else in the article. I guess a third option to explain Gerrans’ argument would be that any project which articulates its orientation as “feminist” is by that very fact worthless.

5

Harry 09.27.09 at 1:50 pm

That was hyperbole. But the main point was sound — far too many people tie the justification of their research completely implausibly to the idea they will illuminate something about very current affairs (I read a lot of applications across the humanities). Worst offenders: area studies. What is hard to know is whether they are being cynical or whether they really believe it.

6

Salient 09.27.09 at 1:52 pm

(h/t Darius Jedburgh)

Joe Don Baker sends you THE articles? That’s… awesome.

As for Gerrans: Sheesh.

I greatly appreciate what I interpret to be the laudably politely indirect efforts of CT authors to convince us that this edition of the THE is almost comprehensively not worth our time^1^ (skip straight to Laurie Taylor, do not pass Go, do not expend £2.20). Counterproductively, though, this has only caused me to spend more time than I otherwise would have reading this edition’s articles…

As a contribution to the overall effort, let me mention that Dan Stern’s article is equally… oh let’s be charitable and say equally unlaudable. Core quote: “In order to succeed, you are going to have to learn to relate your research to the outside world. Put on your lipstick, do your hair and go out and sell, baby, sell.” Hilarity (or is it wearyingly petulant sarcasm), and a Moral Message (or is it wearyingly choleric satire), ensue.

^1^I suppose I’m assuming some implied harsh judgment of the Gerrans article here, and insofar as the presumption is incorrect, apologies for misunderstanding.

7

Matt 09.27.09 at 1:59 pm

What is hard to know is whether they are being cynical or whether they really believe it.
Don’t an awful lot of grants require some sort of statement of relevancy (how the research will impact disadvantaged communities, serve the under-served, etc.)? The honest answer might well be, “well, if we understand the stuff I’m working better, maybe we’ll come to a better grip on the bigger problems and in 10-15 years we’ll make a bit of progress.” That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me, but is unlikely to get a lot of grant money. And, since there’s not a lot of grant money for many types of work around, people jump through the hoops they must to get what they can. I mostly blame the funding agencies and the like more than the applicants.

8

Salient 09.27.09 at 2:31 pm

But the main point was sound—far too many people tie the justification of their research completely implausibly to the idea they will illuminate something about very current affairs

Glad I added the disclaimer. Admittedly, I didn’t see very much in the article itself that spoke to justification of research by illumination of very current affairs (in particular I don’t get how barcode imaging is a “current affairs” topic). Going back through, it’s a little clearer to me now why “terrorism or globalisation or the influence of the internet” were chosen for the author’s three examples: I thought the idea was to mention three topics which are as patently obviously faddish and unworthy of study as brain imaging.

It was depressing to see Gerrans go on for paragraphs haranguing applied algebraic topologists for hypertrophied claims of results published in sensational newspaper articles, only to eventually admit that, well, nobody in the field pays much attention to sensational newspaper articles, and that any research in neuroscience could be equally sensationally hyped & misrepresented.

He fails to acknowledge that writers of newspaper articles, who solicit conjectures and untested hypotheses from the neuroscientists they interview and who frequently misrepresent or decontextualize the quotes they receive, are not identical with the neuroscientists themselves, whose professional work he is impugning as faddish (where’s the acknowledgment, for example, that the exact same barcode analysis techniques are now widely applied in robotics — is that somehow less faddish?)

He basically accuses anyone researching applications of persistent cohomology of dishonesty, only to first admit that it’s incorrect because the actual research he has in mind does not itself claim anything dishonest, and to later admit that it’s inconsequential because other researchers are reading the research, not the newspaper puffery.

Then we get: “None of this would matter if the [humanities] market were basically self-correcting like the science market.” Self-correcting what? He failed to ID anything problematic in the neurological/topological research itself, anything needing “correcting” in the sciences research. Is the whole point that researchers in the humanities should stop paying attention to sensationalist newspaper pieces?

As for the problems he’s identifying in the humanities: I can’t directly speak to that. I will note in passing that identifying the compensatory assistance that low-SES background students may receive as “handicap degrees to marginal students from poor backgrounds” doesn’t earn Gerrans any favors with me. I doubt the predominant reason that individuals are advocating for such assistance is in order to prop up their ailing “anti-knowledge” departments.

Am I just ignorantly missing a general meme? Is neuroscience-punching the humanities’ equivalent to liberal-hippie-punching in American media?

9

Barry 09.27.09 at 2:57 pm

John Emerson left a good comment there; the author didn’t mention economics, which would have been both a bubble field, and a bubble field which strongly impacts the world outside of academia.

10

mathpants 09.27.09 at 3:32 pm

Salient,

where do you get the impression that the author is slandering (or even knows about) persistent (co)homology, barcodes, and the like? After several readings, I couldn’t convince myself that he was.

As someone at least vaguely in that field, I’d be be downright excited if he was. You know, first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they co-opt your ideas into a musical number on the Brady Bunch Variety Hour. As far as I can tell, no one in my little sub-field has been denounced in the popular media, so it’d be great to get this stuff rolling. If it helps, I recently submitted a paper that makes frequent use of the term “perversity.”

11

Tom Hurka 09.27.09 at 5:22 pm

“Someone who takes a supervisor’s advice to base a career on writing about Slavoj Zizek is in the position of an investor deciding to invest in Bear Stearns on the advice of Lehman Brothers. “

Nice!

12

Reinder 09.27.09 at 7:21 pm

Well those assets had to be allocated somewhere after the economics bubble burst…

13

fred lapides 09.27.09 at 7:55 pm

Not to worry. Get tenure (he has it?) and the, after the crash, ask to be bailed out. Only the non-tenured will default on their livelihood.

14

dsquared 09.27.09 at 8:07 pm

In actual fact, of course, the media industry is one of the UK’s biggest export earners (and has the substantial advantage over financial services that it doesn’t seem to require any “bailouts” above and beyond a modest TV licence fee), and lots of intelligent people in the media industry do actually regard Zizek (in particular) as having lots of useful things to say which help them continue to produce popular and profitable television programmes. I’ve always wondered why it seems to be taken as a given at the THES that Media Studies or Cultural Studies courses are useless in one of the world’s biggest producers of media and culture; I occasionally wonder if the Swiss equivalent of the THES makes hilarious jokes about Watchmaking courses (I actually know that the Welsh language middlebrow press does, equally stupidly, have a prejudice against Tourism courses).

15

Walt 09.27.09 at 8:18 pm

mathpants, you need to create your own media crisis. I suggest titling your next paper “Perverting the Sheaf: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Intersectionality”.

16

mathpants 09.27.09 at 8:29 pm

walt, that’s pretty brilliant. I can only offer:

“Duality or Dualities?” and “Love on the Chain Gang: Forbidden Contact Between Social Strata.”

I’ll get my coat.

17

engels 09.27.09 at 8:31 pm

Theory-bashing also seems to a sector which is prone to over-investment in the UK…

18

engels 09.27.09 at 8:38 pm

Actually it’s a very even-handed article, from a Two Cultures point of view. Keep the humanities people happy by bashing fMRI and Ramachandran and keep the scientists happy by bashing Theory and Zizek.

19

Chris Bertram 09.27.09 at 9:04 pm

_lots of intelligent people in the media industry do actually regard Zizek (in particular) as having lots of useful things to say which help them continue to produce popular and profitable television programmes._

Hmm. Well a colleague in the a related discipline did once try the argument on me that academic research in cinema and tv is to actual (and lucrative) cultural production in those areas as medical research is to medicine. I didn’t believe him though.

I’d love to know, specifically, which remarks of Zizek’s turned out to be practically useful in the way you describe ….. But even if you were to come up with them, I don’t think it would establish what you need. After all, lots of genuinely great art has been produced under the influence of very dodgy theory in the past. It doesn’t redeem the theory, as theory.

20

Substance McGravitas 09.27.09 at 9:39 pm

If only we could go back to the time before the bubble when bullshit was readily identifiable.

21

dsquared 09.27.09 at 9:47 pm

I don’t have specific knowledge here, other than that most of the people I know in advertising are real Zizek fans, but having read “The Desert of the Real” in particular, it wouldn’t at all surprise me that there’s an influence there to the avalanche of reality television shows, revival of “Come Dancing”, etc. Simon Cowell probably doesn’t read Zizek, but the people who commission him might do, and Charlie Parsons (“Survivor” and others) was definitely a fan IIRC. I’d agree that this doesn’t necessarily redeem the theory in intellectual terms, but was that Garrens’ point, or was it that media studies degrees would be worthless in practical terms?

(I’m actually in favour of media studies even in the knowledge that most people who study it don’t get a job in the media. One of the critical factors in maintaining the UK as a global media hub is that we’ve got a very discerning and sophisticated domestic market indeed. It’s kind of like having gastronomy on the curriculum in Lyons; the aim would be to perpetuate a regional cultural strength. Adam Smith, iirc, claimed that the ins and outs of cutlery-making were practically normal conversation in public-houses in Sheffield, and I think there’s a definite benefit in having conversations about irony, cultural appropriation and the social role of the media being standard pub-table fodder in Soho).

22

Ian 09.27.09 at 9:52 pm

“Someone who takes a supervisor’s advice to base a career on writing about Slavoj Zizek is in the position of an investor deciding to invest in Bear Stearns on the advice of Lehman Brothers. ”

Nice!

As a quip, it’s decent. But does it describe a real state of affairs? It seems to me that there are very few humanties scholars out there who “base [their] career” on theory of any sort, let alone one specific theorist. In the past few years, the English department at my university, once a theory powerhouse, received funding for three hires in “theory” of some sort (as a way to regain some lost glory). One remains unfilled, and the other two went to people whose work on literature is theoretically inflected: in other words, ordinary literary scholars. This is how most people in the humanities use theory, anyway: as a tool that helps them talk about the things they really want to talk about (which are rarely terrorism or the internet).

In broad terms, the article mostly takes what Bourdieu told us about the dynamics of fields a generation ago and dresses it up in the current financial crisis. It’s clever, but not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.

23

John Quiggin 09.27.09 at 9:59 pm

There’s an interesting jab in there about Australian academics rating Australian journals A+, which almost entirely misses the point.

In lots of disciplines, including economics, there are no genuinely international general journals (there are some in subfields like mathematical economics and econometrics). The leading general journal is the American Economic Review, and the runners-up are mostly house journals of US universities, followed by some UK journals. As far as applied work is concerned, these journals are (reasonably enough in one sense) parochial. The American Economic Review is much more likely to publish articles on US policy issues using US data than similar-quality articles about Australia.

So, if you want to applied work about Australia, you’re going to spend a lot of time publishing in Australian journals. If this is to be rewarded in an output-based funding system, those journals have to be rated A+.

The difficulty is that only a minority of economic work is directly applied in this way, and the general standard of articles is consistent with the ranking that puts the American Economic Review at the top and its Australian equivalent (the Economic Record) nowhere. (There’s also an Australian Economic Review, which sticks to good applied and policy pieces, and is very handy for those of us who like to mention a recent acceptance by AER!).

24

Keir 09.27.09 at 11:51 pm

I didn’t believe him though.

Why not? After all, no one would dispute that Fry and Greenberg and so-on have had serious influence on painting; why is it odd to think that the same applies to film and television?

25

Billikin 09.28.09 at 12:48 am

How can you have a bubble in the humanities? At least as far as content is concerned? Aren’t new and interesting interpretations the — beg pardon — meat and potatoes of the humanities? Aren’t the sands always shifting, so that there is no bedrock basis for evaluation? To be sure, viewpoints and schools of thought come and go, and I suppose that some of them go like the One Hoss Shay, which could be called a crash. But as far as the humanities as a whole go, can creative insight be very overvalued?

26

derek 09.28.09 at 8:53 am

Well, at least he’s making a falsifiable prediction that will come due in the near term. To say there is a “bubble” in some stock amounts to saying it is overvalued and there will soon be a correction. If there isn’t a correction soon, then it wasn’t overvalued, and there wasn’t a bubble.

27

Henry 09.28.09 at 2:17 pm

bq. One of the critical factors in maintaining the UK as a global media hub is that we’ve got a very discerning and sophisticated domestic market indeed. It’s kind of like having gastronomy on the curriculum in Lyons; the aim would be to perpetuate a regional cultural strength. Adam Smith, iirc, claimed that the ins and outs of cutlery-making were practically normal conversation in public-houses in Sheffield, and I think there’s a definite benefit in having conversations about irony, cultural appropriation and the social role of the media being standard pub-table fodder in Soho).

There’s a business professor called Amar Bhide who has made this basic argument (sophisticated consumer markets as an important source of comparative advantage) at somewhat tedious length (the book is called The Venturesome Economy and has some 500 pages as best as I recall; the argument and real evidence could be summarized nicely in a 30 page pamphlet).

28

Salient 09.29.09 at 4:06 pm

where do you get the impression that the author is slandering (or even knows about) persistent (co)homology, barcodes, and the like? After several readings, I couldn’t convince myself that he was.

Yeah, your point (especially the parenthetical) is probably correct. If not that study, though — which, you’ll be happy to hear, was the controversial topic du jour around here a few months ago — it’s not clear what he was cracking about.

(For those interested in the research in question, which is quite wonderful, see here. Prepare your “model the cow as a perfect sphere” jokes in anticipation of Figure 2!)

You know, first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they co-opt your ideas into a musical number on the Brady Bunch Variety Hour. As far as I can tell, no one in my little sub-field has been denounced in the popular media, so it’d be great to get this stuff rolling.

Say, you’ve got a point…

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