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Why the Humanities Matter

Why the Humanities Matter
A Commonsense Approach

A rousing rethinking of current critical theory and the role of culture in realms ranging from art and literature to justice and history.

June 2008
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391 pages | 6 x 9 |

Is there life after postmodernism? Many claim that it sounded the death knell for history, art, ideology, science, possibly all of Western philosophy, and certainly for the concept of reality itself. Responding to essential questions regarding whether the humanities can remain politically and academically relevant amid this twenty-first-century uncertainty, Why the Humanities Matter offers a guided tour of the modern condition, calling upon thinkers in a variety of disciplines to affirm essential concepts such as truth, goodness, and beauty.

Offering a lens of "new humanism," Frederick Aldama also provides a liberating examination of the current cultural repercussions of assertions by such revolutionary theorists as Said, Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, as well as Latin Americanists such as Sommer and Mignolo. Emphasizing pedagogy and popular culture with equal verve, and writing in colloquial yet multifaceted prose, Aldama presents an enlightening way to explore what "culture" actually does—who generates it and how it shapes our identities—and the role of academia in sustaining it.

  • Introduction. A New Humanism
  • Chapter One. Self, Identity, and Ideas
  • Chapter Two. Revisiting Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault
  • Chapter Three. Derrida Gets Medieval
  • Chapter Four. Imaginary Empires, Real Nations
  • Chapter Five. Edward Said Spaced Out
  • Chapter Six. Modernity, What?
  • Chapter Seven. Teachers, Scholars, and the Humanities Today
  • Chapter Eight. Translation Matters
  • Chapter Nine. Can Music Resist?
  • Chapter Ten. The "Cultural Studies Turn" in Brown Studies
  • Chapter Eleven. Pulling up Stakes in Latin/o American Theoretical Claims
  • Chapter Twelve. Fugitive Thoughts on Justice and Happiness
  • Chapter Thirteen. Why Literature Matters
  • Chapter Fourteen. Interpretation, Interdisciplinarity, and the People
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of English at the Ohio State University


In Enemies of the Enlightenment Darrin McMahon details the witch-hunt-like hysteria fanned by eighteenth-century French obscurantist clergy, aristocrats, Sorbonne-censoring penseurs, and other representatives of the ancien régime challenged by a progressive generation of thinkers and writers (les philosophes) who argued that reason, truth, and knowledge are universal pursuits based on universal human faculties. My intellectual and political interests are not confined within the eighteenth-century French worldview or, more generally, within the European Enlightenment, a fascinating yet veritable mélange of progressive and reactionary figures and outlooks. However, McMahon's scholarly reconstruction of the struggle of obscurantism against scientifically oriented thought in France is timely because that struggle has found new expressions in the academy and society, especially in the past thirty years or so, in America and also in some rather unexpected places.

For me to bear this statement out, I ask for some anecdotal indulgence. Invited to give a lecture on diasporic literature at a university in Switzerland, I suggested that we begin to look past poststructuralist paradigms in our analysis of Latin American, U.S. ethnic, and South Asian postcolonial literature and move forward to the use of tools provided by narratology and cognitive science—not exclusively, though centrally—to explore how authors creatively reframe identities and experiences that are located within postcolonial literary traditions and engage readers belonging not only to those traditions but also to many other, quite different ones. In this context, I suggested too that the study of postcolonial literature would find it conceptually useful (and scientifically interesting) to proceed within a world literature paradigm. I proposed that we keep in mind that literary analysis is as capacious as literature itself in that it may contain all kinds of approaches and evaluations, including, of course, political assessments; but no matter how much meaning and performative theories may be stretched or curtailed on a Procrustean bed, a work of fiction, a book review, or a literary theory dealing with politics can never become the same animal as an organized, actual doing of politics. (For instance, Louis-Ferdinand Céline's or Paul de Man's wartime pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic articles drew their efficaciousness not from themselves but from the social, political, economic, and military barbarism they were supporting as it was spreading and vanquishing along with the deployment of Hitler's, Mussolini's, and Hirohito's troops.) Also, I indicated that the self is not a conceptual construct designed on a blank slate, but a material agency capable of modifying reality and being modified by it in specific circumstances located in time and space. I therefore suggested that the approach I advocate offers interesting means for the advancement of our literary and humanistic endeavors because it is based on hypotheses that are susceptible to empirical verification or refutation and it allows for true research programs. Therefore, I reminded my audience that history is paramount for us. Cosmology, physics, molecular biology, genetics, paleontology, psychology, sociology, economics, history, and most other scientific disciplines deal with time, change, and evolution and are thus in a strict sense historical disciplines. In the case of the human subject and of humanity as a whole, all sciences show that humans are inseparably both the products and the shapers of their bio-social-psychological-historical existence. Following many others before me, I made evident that it is scientifically rewarding to acknowledge the fact that since the ancient division of society into antagonistic social classes (masters and slaves, for instance), the struggle against oppression and exploitation has never ceased.

Today, such a division takes the specifically historical form of a system of class rule based on the private ownership of the main means of production (held by a tiny minority of families) and the exploitation of the vast majority of the planet's inhabitants. Because of the barbarism this system increasingly generates (the gigantic slaughters of two world wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iraq are but a few of its manifestations), the very survival of the human race is at stake, and humankind must continue the struggle to achieve a classless society, that is, a society in which the world's population is free from oppression and exploitation because all wealth is no longer produced, distributed, exchanged, and consumed according to the ever-insatiable profit-making and capital-accumulation prerequisites of capitalist society. I thus recalled that while all humans share a cognitive and emotive architecture that emerged even before we began our journey as Homo sapiens sapiens, each member of our species is unique in the way she uses this universal endowment as well as in how she participates in the transformation of nature and society. There are certainly genetic and psychological factors involved in the love of cruelty and violence by some, but the evidence shows that those proclivities become actions most frequently in social environments that encourage them. I think of today's massive violations of the rights of immigrants, the massive detentions of citizens or aliens—indefinitely, without any due process, right to counsel, or human rights protections—the prescribed use of torture, and the attacks against key constitutional rights, including the right to abortion, the right to vote and to have votes fairly counted, the right to medical care, and the right to a secular and scientific education. Last, I suggested that the approach I advocate is, all in all, beneficial to literary studies and to the humanities in general because it does not require reliance on "gurus" or "master thinkers." I mentioned the findings in the work of Patrick Colm Hogan, David Herman, James Phelan, H. Porter Abbott, Lisa Zunshine, and Kenan Malik, among many others, to show what direction this research is taking today.

This is not the place to enter into particulars. My examples showed, to state it here in its most abstract terms, how postcolonial literature draws its readers into new puzzles—cognitive webs and labyrinths they must negotiate—as well as new forms of personal and social empathy—emotional proximity or distance with respect to the many events, situations, mores, and cultural and individual traits so inadequately summarized by the words difference and other. Mostly, the talk fell flat. Several scholars in the audience declared the subject and the world socially constructed and indeterminable; others said my approach was tainted by an epistemology of Western essentialism; one acknowledged the importance of a materialist grounding to postcolonial scholarship, attaching to it a "new humanism."


In this book I offer above all a critical view of issues that concern the humanities. And while each chapter deals with specific and delimited questions and problems, making it possible to read them in any order, the book is conceived as a whole. Arguments and findings in one chapter form a chain with discussions in another, and so on. Thus whether a chapter aims to think through the problems of translation, justice, music, literature, or the role of the scholar in society, to name but a few, the result is a prison of analyses and reasons that holds together by the materialist and humanist light shed on each and all.

Disciplinary demarcations are necessary for pedagogical reasons. But they do not mirror reality. Ours is an interconnected and ever-changing world—a supersystem composed of interconnected subsystems of various kinds (physical, cultural, social, and so on) that possess their own peculiar properties and laws. And so, just as nothing in our society is isolated, so these chapters are linked, making up a whole that aims to explore as deeply as possible many of the activities we spin out of ourselves to transform a reality that exists independent of our creating and that in turn shapes us and our subsequent activities. This book keeps centrally in mind, then, not only the fact that in our society nothing is isolated, but also that in our odyssey as Homo sapiens sapiens we have been evolving a self able to refine, revise, and create anew all variety of cultural phenomena and a capacity to enjoy them. This book keeps centrally in mind that we are all situated in history. We are all a part of history. We all make history. We are all made by the historical conditions we create.

This book is a formal attempt to move away from the erstwhile free-for-all construction and consumption of notions that see "truth" as "something that must be created" (Friedrich Nietzsche) and the study of the world as "eternal recurrence" (Nietzsche). It is to propose that objectivity and reasoned argument can help to show how arguments used to justify racism, sexism, and class exploitation are specious. As such, my book does not take the position that the material realm is unobservable; that science is de facto bad; that it is the root cause of capitalist enslavement or an appendage to patriarchal power or both. Rather, while science is not perfect in its measurements, it has allowed us to understand more clearly how certain aspects of reality work. We would not get on a plane and fly across the country if this were not so. Not all our ideas about the world are fictions. Indeed, it is because of our building and revising of verifiable facts that we can better understand the earth's history and the evolution of life as well as the economics of capitalism—a system based on profit (surplus value) residing in the use of labor power by the private owners of the means of production.

Indeed, scientific investigation works to eliminate, as Adam Katz remarks, "as many false paths as possible" (24) and to demystify "obscurantist ideological generalities" (25). Our failure to defend a materialist-based politics—instead of pursuing a "politics" of dismantling reason and causality—will result in a loss of any possibility of using science to open "spaces previously closed to scrutiny" (25). If there is no truth—no content and no meaning of subjectivity and only its effects—then, as Katz writes, "experience and interpretations of experience can . . . no longer be seen as either legitimating existing social relations due to their obviousness or naturalness . . . or as providing the kinds of knowledges necessary for emancipatory movements seeking structural transformations" (65). Hence, the general aim of this book is to promote methods and approaches that make a difference and that advance our knowledge of the world.


My book grows out of a restless concern with those who declare that my generation has arrived just as the world is dying: at the end of history, the end of art, ideology, science, the entirety of Western metaphysical thought and philosophy, the end of social classes and class warfare, the end, even, of social reality. To mark this end, scholars of all walks of life—from Latin American, Chicano/Latino, and postcolonial cultural studies scholars, translation theorists, to the high priests of poststructuralism—seem to be dishing out healthy servings of a philosophical Idealism that lead only to endless speculation.

In response, I have written this book, which takes a materialist approach to the self and all the things we spin out of our selves in our transformation of nature—a nature that in turn transforms us. Each chapter treats a subject to enliven critical debate and explore productive new directions of study. Each is an attempt to answer as completely as possible the questions raised by my readings and by students I encounter year after year in my teaching who are hungry to know how the world works. Among the topics the chapters explore are the following: What is music? What is film? What is literature? What are we reading when we read a translation? Is translation nation? How does translation work? What is this thing called modernity? What is language? What is culture? What do cultural phenomenon do in the world? What is the nation? What is the subject? What is justice? What is the role of the scholar/intellectual in the classroom and in society at large? Each of the fourteen chapters puts one such topic under the microscope to understand it as fully as possible.

Rather than give an overview of each chapter, as is the custom, I ask instead that you imagine the book in toto as a Venn diagram composed of a series of sets that overlap and give shape to the individual chapters. The book aims to show clearly to scholars, students, and curious readers alike that there are distinctions that make a difference when we talk about ideas, culture, history, and society; that each matters, but in significantly different ways, in our shaping of the material, cultural, and social conditions that make up present and future reality. In its materialist, humanist, anti-Idealist thrust there is a commitment to clarifying the correspondence between our assertions and reality. The book is committed to upholding the achievements humanity has achieved in its odyssey and to showing that the material and social conditions of the future lie in the labors, struggles, and accomplishments of peoples worldwide. It is also an affirmation of those hardworking, faithful, time-honored, and much-regretted concepts of truth, good, and beauty and of the other concepts and categories, such as time, space, substance, quantity, quality, relation, position, possession, action, and passion.


“This is one of the most versatile, colloquially written, and philosophically astute readings of the American politics of race and the university that one can find anywhere. In the name of a 'new humanism' based on struggle, Aldama draws (at times humorously) on his experiences as a teacher to give a persuasive account of the self based (of all things) on neuroscience and evolutionary biology. An exciting book.”
Timothy Brennan, Professor, Departments of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature, and English, University of Minnesota

“In his wide-ranging new study, Frederick Aldama is ahead of the curve, ratcheting up the kind of synthetic, interdisciplinary work one finds in writers like Frans de Waal, Patrick Colm Hogan, Andy Clark, and Susan Oyama to a vision of the humanities itself as a field permeated everywhere by scientific insight. In this, Aldama energetically pursues what E. O. Wilson called 'consilience,' but at its broadest level and with a respect both for scientific reductionism and for its limitations at this level of complexity.”
Porter Abbott, Research Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of California, Santa Barbara


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