For years, the discipline of the humanities has raised fundamental doubts — in tedious post-structuralist fashion — about the bases of itself. The humanities are comprised of many interrelated and hard to differentiate sub-disciplines, and the outcome of the overlap between them is the distinctive 21st century coinage of “transdisciplinary” or “interdisciplinary” studies, which echoes attempts to categorize new media technologies into “multimedia” or “new media.” What Lev Manovich calls the “meta-medium” of the computer is in itself a well regarded parallel with the times of post-modernity.
During sociological modernity, Enlightenment values used to be highly regarded, defended, and stood for. Then in postmodernity, most of these values — including beauty, truth, and even the concept of value itself — were taken to task for their alleged inability to capture the multiplicity of the real world. In most extreme cases, even the reality of the world was denied, in exchange for instability, skepticism, and a distrust of what post-structuralist philosophers came to see as grand narratives.
The discipline of the humanities was struck down by a generalized skepticism, a condition that divided the sub-disciplines further, turning them against one another. And so the transdisciplinary arose as a kind of glueing together, in terms familiar to anyone that has read Colombian mathematician Fernando Zalamea. In the last instance, the humanities needed to unite itself, in a forced manner to be sure, but to be united was key. Not for a common objective, but for political-economic reasons. Quite simply, during the great breakdown of the humanities, the sub-disciplinary explosion was simply a way to capitalize on the plurality of worldviews and methods that could be used to analyze the world, and in so doing, get the flows of capital hooked to the vein. Transdisciplinarity emerged as an effort to link, in a quiet network fashion, sub-disciplines that were split up.
The main objective behind such an enterprise was quite simple. Why does an institution in the 21st century do what it does? So-called knowledge institutions do not move, but for capital. The critique that the humanities had undertaken against the sciences was a desperate case of projection, in which science became yet another object of doubt, while the humanities itself reeked of it. Once it became fashionable to study any of the sub-disciplines of the humanities, the sciences responded, but only half-heartedly, by trying to obliterate the humanities under its own play of signifiers, power structures, and endless corrosive doubt.
The task of assessing the value of the humanities can be linked to that of evaluating the value of humanity itself, for this is what it studies in the most abstract sense. The idea of the humanities differs from that of the sciences first because it rejects the idea of empiricism, which, broadly defined, is the study of material reality. In the humanities, we are reminded pointedly of the value that humans have, be it explicitly in the discourses that frame a study, or implicitly, by positing, even under the guise of incessant doubt, conceptual edifices that shall not be questioned.
Contrary to popular belief, the humanities run against the sciences’ position of revision — the updating of commitments, and, ultimately, the repositioning of certain propositions which are found to be wrong. A set of parameters determines any kind of scientific truth and conditions for its revision, whereas the humanities would like to see this as a gospel, a discourse to be destroyed just like any discourse, and therefore undertakes its attack on the sciences for its supposed naive realism. But the attack turns the humanities against itself, for its relativism has as a starting point the discipline’s own unperceived inconsistencies. Scientific truth is reached through proof and rigorous revision; humanistic truth is never reached, it only changes depending on its standpoint, as the discourses and practices of the human can be studied from an endless variety of perspectives, which makes for a difficult case when trying to present findings of any kind, specifically in its more abstract theoretical disguises.
Among scholars, the difficulty in disagreeing with each other’s scholarship is the more notorious signs of cataclysm. Scholars frequently talk past one another, defending points that refer to further debates in their own research, regardless of whether there is any relation, isomorphic, direct or otherwise, to reality. The decline of meaning in the humanities means that value has been frequently trashed, set aside for a confident cynicism, the skeptic’s drug of choice. Rooted in the security of indeterminacy and instability, any claim can take its own power, despite reality’s claims to the contrary. Counterintuitive claims such as “The Gulf War Never Happened” by Jean Baudrillard can be unpacked to create an analytical tool about the mediated aspect of reality. The difference, as with the followers of poststructuralism, is that this claim is made to be elastic, hermeneutically amenable, and fantastically expanded upon to make assertions and conceptual systems which defy the limits of understandable discourse.
The institutionalization of knowledge is a pariah that has been denounced by many a scholar, and systematic attacks about the nature of its power and discourses have been undertaken by philosophers such as Michel Foucault, who candidly admitted to John Searle that the French intellectual scene demanded florid discourse. It was, and it still is, not enough to merely assert a point rationally with arguments and evidence: the need to generalize, universalize, and exploit the poetic kernel of one’s writing style persists. In itself that would not be a damning indictment. Writers have different writing styles, and that’s what makes them unique, poetics has a place in any kind of discipline, even the hard sciences. However, were we to analyze the poetic qualities of the humanities writing style we would quickly find out that they overpower the text’s argumentative quality. It is not enough to merely dismiss the content of much humanities scholarship as “gibberish” without having a look at it to assess the arguments therein. However, much of the poetics replaces the arguments and the reader is left with a very good, quotable text, that has no purchase beyond its own pyramid. It is an edifice to behold, but its practicality is lost on the reader.
The humanities scholar cares for quality research only insofar as it intersects with economic incentives. There is no point in blaming any particular agent for pursuing a research agenda that follows the money. But to pretend there is any claim to knowledge in poetic texts that disregard empirical proof, discredits the institutions and edifices that gave the humanities scholar the possibility of writing without regard to it. In railing against perceived authority and power structures, the humanities scholar may very well be on target claiming that institutions that produce a quality control apparatus for their research are arbitrary, and themselves limit the production of further experimental research or texts. Ironically, however, this claim presents a kind of idealistic humanism, where the university is akin to Herman Hesse’s Castalia, a place where knowledge can be pursued without any accountability to external actors.
However, when the university was institutionalized it let go of that specific utopia. Instead, it became a tool for creating and maintaining narratives, most of them which sustain a sense of progress — the sense that humanity is moving itself forward.
But institutions mirror humans, and humans fuck up. Most of time, the fuck-up does not yield catastrophic consequences. To be human is to be imperfect, after all. Be it by nature or nurture, there are multiple ways to be a fuck-up and follow that path, relentlessly. Maladaptive tendencies rot even the most progressive of civilizations (look around you) and it is mostly, not partly, because of us. The distaste for humanity has a long and varied history, which is not worth recapping here; however, the entropic quality of humanity itself creates affinity groups which can reach a higher level of organization under the banner of institutions. We will cling to the term institutions for the purposes of analyzing a particular feedback loop.
For Mencius Moldbug, this axis was a part of an overarching apparatus he dubbed ‘the Cathedral.’ The pointing and laughing shall be kept at minimum for the benefit of the reader. Following Louis Althusser, however, from a distinctly left-wing marxist tradition, we will point out that the circulation of ideologies from the dominant class — who are for the most part progressives — recalls his formulation of Ideological State Apparatuses. That apparatus involves mechanisms outside the state that serve to further its message. The ideological circuit of the university and the press shall be placed within this frame, to crack open the dybbuk box of right-wing critical theory.
The university, a most modern construction, is conceived, broadly, as the institutionalization of knowledge. The divide comes at the expense of the polymath, the master of different fields, and it instaurates itself as the divide between the humanities and science. In one corner, thought, the social, culture, criticality; in the other, technological advancement, innovation, practicality. Many the times both opponents have met in the middle, but as with the continental-analytic divide in philosophy, the tribal disputes degenerate into enervating cathexis.
The conflict has its modern roots in the nature vs. nurture debate. From there it takes off, reaching preposterous dizzying heights in the claims of the standard social science model (SSSM), used to refer to the various theories that uphold the blank slate, social constructivism, and relativism. In broad terms, this can be construed as what Stephen Hicks refers to as postmodernism.
Within the social sciences, a field in which I have spent the past six years, a lot of these debates keep going without dialogue with science, or more generously put, with minimal intervention from it. ‘Critical’ social scientists, theorists and researchers within the marxist-leftist critical theory tradition, are skeptical of any information coming from any scientific background. Rather, they opt for abstract theoretical and conceptual systems that reference only themselves. Science is seen, ironically, as too unstable, too revisable. The results can change at any moment and the verification of any claim is disputed. It makes sense, from the perspective of the social scientist, to disregard any scientific information. Within its tribe, its institutional system, it is what neo-Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci called “common sense.” The humanities exert their own forked hegemony, reinforced by feedback mechanisms: books, lectures, events, schools, cliques. Tribes inside of tribes.
The institutionalization of a field of inquiry brings about its own self-regulating micro-economies, enforced by norms and prescription. It is not only scientists who remain puzzled by the claims of the humanities, but the public, not to mention that if we entertain the endless tribal warfare within it, groups will find problems with other groups. And so, the battle of vocabularies begins. “What did you mean by dogshit?” “It’s a long story, let me expand…” If humans are good at anything it is wasting time. And time is one thing we do not have. So, the humanities expands, creates the conditions for its own knowledge industry to arise, but feeds itself numb. A most ouroboreal compulsion.
“Common sense” to the humanities and the social sciences gets installed as normality. One enters the university and leaves a Critically Enabled Theoretical Superweapon. It sounds exhilarating, to be this critical, this informed, this cultured. But the superweapon shoots blanks, and like any dysfunctional tribal mechanism, it tends to shoot whatever is closest to itself. The feedback loop continues.
But to posit that the eschatological dimension of the humanities is a self-contained loop of bullshit is to understate their advancement in coordinated mind control. By this, of course, what is meant is the implanting of concepts, theories, and ideas that get a hold of the agent by virtue of his being thrown into an ecosystem that constantly speaks about these notions. The humanities, and their consequent research, form a mechanism of legitimacy that is the trademark of every institution. That they are trustworthy is a given by the sheer opulence of the educational system. In this charade, we encounter another legitimized institution, the press, or the only place for the humanities to feel the fresh air of public reward and dissemination.
On this axis of the Cathedral we will ruminate, for the mechanisms of legitimacy tend to instantly award research in the humanities a certain status. There are two strategies for taking the humanities to task for their research output, usually mixed together. One is to analyze the contents of the arguments advanced and the findings, whether the author has made a convincing argument or not. The other strategy starts in what we might called the pre-research moment. It is usually the task of supervisors to analyze thoroughly the research methodology that is being undertaken. In this moment is where the questions about the research problem, the objectives of the research, the methodology, and the research hypothesis emerge.
The latter technique is mostly advised, in order to prevent the student from writing anything that has not been thoroughly examined yet. The case has been made against the type of structure that research in the humanities usually has, and cases made against any type of structure. Any type of structure is usually seen as an imposition on creativity, or worse, according to the dominant common sense of the humanities, as “trying to emulate science.”
Regardless what some might hope for, though, research methodology persists. Fields such as human-computer interaction (HCI) obey a structure that results in a distinguishing readability when compared to the usual constellation of humanities papers.
The ruling common sense inside the humanities, with the advent of post-structural thinkers, has bred myriad forms of questioning itself. The tribal disputes grow larger and eventually a weaponized moralism sets in. A vulgar Marxian spirit possesses the students: a ruthless criticism of everything existing. Everything must be inspected, denounced, obliterated.
But Marx’s quote is worth reading in full:
But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
The institutionalized university creates the feedback loop in which the students lead the charge at the closest tribal enemy: the teachers, the administration, or the curricula. For students, the moralistic drive they embody is a (pre-packaged) achievement, however cosmopolitan and trapped within the confines of their ideological tribe they are a part of. By attacking the closest tribe, the foot soldiers of criticality forget the present, the material reality of which Marx was fond. The culture of criticism sees no points, only triggers. As the common sense of vulgar criticism advances, it begins to poison its most important output: its research and its accompanying methodology. Hypothesis and moral judgements get easily confounded, if not entirely swapped arbitrarily.
No one in the humanities can be objective about its subject matter or object of analysis. When a student has an interest in a topic, it’s a personal interest. Maybe it’s a topic that affects them personally, or that they have been thinking for a while. Doctoral students of the humanities spend many thankless hours on one subject. Passion is the only way to keep the fire from burning out.
But the ruling common sense, a memetic parasite, infects the research methodology. The utterly post-structuralist gesture would be to drop the structure of research altogether. However, most universities demand the research have some sort of internal consistency that can be defensible before a thesis committee. The skeptical common sense poisons the well precisely at the pre-research moment, where hypotheses have been made. An ideological agenda does not so much come from the supervisors or even one university, but from the institutional system as a whole. Common sense is precisely that: unquestionable. One can have pre-conceptions about the objects of study, but if they are put in a box, it is very likely they will stay there for the remainder of the research.
The material reality is lost. Any kind of empirical or practical inquiry into the world – via interviews, participant observation, questionnaires or focus groups – will be used to reinforce common sense. Research has been done a priori. Theoretical frameworks, conceptual systems, and endless bibliographies will form a considerable line of defense for the common sense, not against it, and a castrated ruthless criticism of everything existing will have emerged. The mechanism loops back again. Bastardizations of prominent theorists will loom over. Hegel’s umso schlimmer für die Fakten (“if facts contradict my theory, so much worse for the facts!”), a much debated quote, can be seen here in action, as the operative function of a model imposing itself on the object of study.
The humanities-journalism feedback loop becomes more tightly bound as a result. Common sense spreads out of the Humanities into the press. Journalists have already decided what is what, how they will speak about it, what tone of outrage to take, how to pitch it in a contrarian or appeasable manner. Journalists follow a much more straightforward path than the humanities: headlines, views, and advertising must be considered. Whereas the humanities, or the university as an institution, would like to consider itself as a bastion against the flows of capital, they very much are not, something that becomes easily graspable the more time is spent in its confines
Much like the university, journalists and printing-press aficionados (shocked and headed towards disintegration by the digital) look for sources to connect the dots. But unlike the institutionalized and quasi-formalized procedure of common-sense creation engendered by the humanities, journalists’ attempts to construct a narrative smack of mediocrity. It’s not surprising that the house of cards built by the humanities and the press gets blown to pieces when inspected. In the humanities there are citations backing arguments (books about books, none of that pesky reality, or at least not one that they would like to see). In journalism, however, it’s left to the humanities to back up tenuous statements. Usually against science, so as to keep reality out by any means necessary. Hence the faux-shock that follows any event that goes against common sense: hegemony in action.
Journalism and the humanities conform a thanatic spiral by confirming each other’s pre-vetted hypotheses with no facts entering into the mix. The scientific method is inverted: “facts” exist only as a material from which to mine ammunition for common sense. Marx’s ruthless criticism becomes outrage culture. ‘Culture’ has outrage and repetition is installed in its design. Of course, in an era of alternative facts and fake news, the confused press tends to bite its closest tribe, as French intellectuals have been pointed at as the culprits of an era of spectacularization, despite their insights being diagnostic not prescriptive in nature. At the core, the journalism-humanities axis of the Cathedral has been fundamentally cordycepted since they were institutionalized, and no amount of what some researchers consider “scientism” — really only methodological rigor — will fix the humanities. It has gone methodologically ballistic.
And so humanity fucks up, yet again, on a much larger scale – this time at studying itself. As the modern figure of the human set in the sand disappears, the institutionalization of knowledge trips over itself to justify its existence by looking at the past and the future. But it forgets, while attending to its own hollow disputes: not even the present is ours.
Giancarlo M. Sandoval is a researcher in London, UK.