Crisis in the humanities

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Citation: Marjorie, Perloff (2004/09/26) Crisis in the humanities. Chapter 1 from Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Crisis in the humanities
Tagged: Education (RSS) education (RSS), humanities (RSS), literature (RSS)


In this book chapter, Marjorie Perloff, professor emeritus at Stanford, responds to an ongoing problem within Humanities departments: being attacked as irrelevant by other disciplines and failing to provide pragmatic training for its Ph.D. students.

In a section titled "What are the Humanities?", Perloff posits the difficulty of various institutions to agree on a definition of and role for the Humanities as the crux of the problem. As a response, she outlines the lineage of literature/poetics (due to it being "one of the central branches of the Humanities”) by defining its role and exhaustively tracing its heterogeneous components (rhetoric, in particular) through such diverse thinkers as Plato and Aristotle to Wittgenstein and Adorno.

The real crisis, Perloff suggests, is literature's literal loss of being studied in and of itself. Rather than the usual ontological treatment other disciplines reserve for their own subjects/objects of study, Perloff points to a trend within the Humanities that uses art and literature as "merely a conduit for meaning above and beyond it." Here, cultural and critical studies are condemned for relegating literary works as a merely a means to prop up various historical and cultural theories as opposed to appreciating them on their own grounds, as an end in and of themselves.

Perloff concludes by prompting a return to "more knowledge of actual art works and a great emphasis on induction" as one way to preserve the Humanities and its resources. But she also points to a continuous trend of re-engagement with art and literature in popular culture (e.g. The Futururists and Marcel Proust) as a sign that the Humanities aren't about to disappear anytime soon, and concludes on a positive note asserting the inevitability of the Humanities to survive due to the nature of its origins and pleasure of its products.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

In the sea of published material surrounding the "Humanities crisis," this treatise serves as a sophisticated and articulate response in an otherwise confusing and contradictory terrain. Perloff is a definitive voice of authority in the Humanities, as such, this paper serves as a great starting point for anyone interested in wanting to make sense of the murky waters currently surrounding the confused discipline.