What is the Humanities?

First effort. Working draft.

The Humanities is the interdisciplinary study of history, philosophy, art and the cultural productions of disparate human communities. Because of its capaciousness this field of inquiry tends to privilege holistic thinking: making connections across historical periods, cultural traditions and geographical spaces.

In a single Humanities course, for instance, students might study Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Oubrerie’s Aya, and and Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, moving from an early modern English drama to a post-colonial Ivorian graphic novel to a mid-20th century film about Japanese juvenile delinquents. Such a diversity of texts will likely fall under a larger theme (in this case Youth as a Cultural Construct).

The purpose of this kind of curriculum includes not only mastering specific texts and gaining knowledge about their socio-historical contexts, but developing analytical and interpretive skills which can be applied in any meaningful encounter with the products and practices of human culture. So, for example, an interpretation of Cruel Story of Youth necessarily demands some familiarity with post-war Japanese Cinema and the social conditions which shaped it as well as the formal techniques of film-making. In addition, theoretical concepts drawn from Cultural Studies, Psychoanalysis, Semiotics, etc. provide a framework for forming judgements and clarifying meaning.

Ideally, every encounter with a representation (a narrative, an image, a work) raises questions. What is the representation’s position within a genre or tradition? What is its social utility, its ideological content, its aesthetic project? How does the representation assert its content? Does the representation suggest meanings it may not ultimately be conscious of or control?

In spite of the postmodern turn (which, in any case, may not exist) official, capitalist culture remains profoundly positivistic. Ours is an age of literalism, of quantification, of facticity, of what’s “relatable” (i.e., of what I require no effort to grasp). Various forms of mysticism such as

a self-regarding “spirituality” unencumbered by dogma (ex. Eat Pray Love, a belief in angels, ethical consumption, etc.)

a pseudo-materialist account of subjectivity (the “chemical-imbalance” theory of psychopathology, CBT, genetic determinism)

finance capital idolatry (ex. NFTs, crypto, the notion that “the Market” is an agent, etc.) or

the paranoid conviction that specific individuals rather than structural forces determine the shape of our lives (QAnon, them Russians, an international Jewish conspiracy, etc.)

serve only to reinforce that positivism in varying ways.

At its most critical, Humanistic study has the capacity to blunt the psycho-social violence of a culture that prizes only that which may be counted,  or exchanged.