Swarthmore College

What if the perennial crisis in the humanities is not a recent phenomenon but instead the very structure of the academic humanities? This question animates Permanent Crisis: The Humanities in a Disenchanted Age by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, which was published earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press. Reitter and Wellmon turn to the formation of the modern academic humanities among nineteenth century German intellectuals to reveal that the conditions that institutionalize humanities disciplines besiege their intellectual aims.

The history Reitter and Wellmon bring forward certainly feels uncanny in the present. The writing of Schelling, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Weber, Humboldt, and others they highlight seems as if it could be ripped from a Chronicle of Higher Ed op-ed du jour that would send academic twitter into a shame spiral. This continuity stems from the pressure placed on the humanities to unite a number of the apparent contradictions that drive the university, such as the pursuit of credentials versus the pursuit of knowledge, or the autonomy (or not) of academic pursuits from political matters. 

We wanted to discuss this book in the Aydelotte office because it crucially reorients ways we might talk and think about the current crisis in the humanities. Through Permanent Crisis, Reitter and Wellmon suggest “crisis talk” both reacts to and constitutes the institutionalization of the humanities. The humanities then, at least as they are known in the university, can seemingly not escape this orientation. Historicizing the crisis in this way occasioned a discussion about the capacities of an academic book in managing, engaging, or reproducing crisis, as well as whether Permanent Crisis invites new paths into investigating how the humanities have been conceived within the academy for the last two centuries. 

Our conversation below has been edited for clarity. 

Andy Hines (AH): Let’s start by reading the final sentences of Permanent Crisis.

Weber’s ultimate concern was not with the restoration of a declining institution or the restoration of a particular form of cultural authority. He was not interested in recovering a mythical university or a form of knowledge so bound up with a particular cultured class and set of self-identified intellectuals. Weber’s ultimate concern, rather, was with the conditions of intellectual life and the possibility of trustworthy knowledge. He wanted to understand and help create the conditions under which scholarship, education, and intellectual work more generally could be protected from real threats and flourish, one of the most important of these threats being the unreflective responses they elicited from scholars—their crisis talk. This is our desire as well.

What interests me about this passage is Weber’s—and Reitter and Wellmon’s—desire to understand the conditions under which scholarship, education, and intellectual work are protected from real material concerns—including the university’s funding, its position vis a vis the state, and its role in class production. Yet the way to understanding these questions gets transposed into humanities-based crisis talk, a discourse rooted in a series of material crises for the German thinkers who are the subject of the book. 

I’d love to hear what you think about that move—pursuing a materialist concern by analyzing a discursive register informed by, but certainly abstracted from those social, political, and economic forces. I ask, too, because this is a familiar challenge.

Rachel Buurma (RB): The big question I have: what’s the use of a scholarly book about the history of crisis talk? 

They answer this in the last pages of the conclusion. They imply that crisis talk may not be tethered to disciplinary or anti-disciplinary practice in the humanities, but, as they write, this practice “has encouraged negative justifications.” And later they suggest that “the institutional division of episteme and techne is one of the more deleterious consequences of the success of the modern humanities, obscuring just how contingent, and ultimately, unstable, the boundaries between forms of knowledge can be.” I would debate whether that opposition is a pure product of the modern humanities, but you can still make an argument that understanding crisis talk might help you undo that division.

They also suggest that “crisis discourse obscures how difficult it can be to adapt older largely Western humanist traditions to more contemporary, egalitarian, and democratic ends.”  And, perhaps the most promising question they offer is about bildung and the conflicting aims of modern, liberal education, particularly in the contrast between self-formation and technical/vocational aims.

So in producing knowledge about the history of crisis discourse what is the role—and I think there is one—for a scholarly monograph in undoing these problems?

Tim Burke (TB): One place to identify that challenge is in the passage you just read: “crisis discourse obscures how difficult it can be to adapt older largely Western humanist traditions to more contemporary, egalitarian, and democratic ends.” The point of crisis discourse, as I read it, is not about how we do the work of adapting, but that crisis discourse obscures how difficult the work of adaptation is. It says, in other words, the problem with crisis discourse is that it makes it difficult to get down to the hard work, so it becomes difficult to glimpse what the hard work is. 

Or, to go to the passage Andy read, what would the humanities be if it were not enveloped in crisis discourse? 

RB: Or, what are the humanities when we follow that crisis discourse? 

The book promises a version of this question.

TB: In promising that and lining this up with Weber’s purpose, I’m left with no way to imagine a humanities—historically or contemporaneously—that is not defined by crisis discourse, because they envelop the notion in that understanding. There are no other lineages or discourses to be found, nor can they be envisioned.

RB: Or even a sense of humanities practice that might oppose the discourse talk they delineate.

TB: Or a practice that side steps, evades, or is not concerned with this discourse.

RB: The focus on crisis discourse creates a situation in which the model for understanding is organized around forms of knowledge tied to individual self-formation, rather than models of collectivity that aren’t already institutionalized.

TB: In a weird way, this is 260 pages about a very particular kind of collectivity: the collectivity of older academic humanists who get together to have a petitionary pity party where they talk to an administration about the things they perceive to be their crises. Permanent Crisis is a cry of anguish from the back of one of those rooms now saying, “you have no idea that you sound just like a bunch of Germans in the nineteenth century!”

That’s a first order business of historicizing, to call attention to people in the present the historicity of things people are saying. Does this mean however that these people are zombies, being linearly produced by a past and reenacting a past no longer materially relevant to their contemporary conditions? Or, is this calling attention for readers something new and powerful about discourses they take to be contemporaneous by rooting them in a tradition of praxis?

They make the former point well. There’s a certain set of people for whom this discourse is a spirit possession from which people need to get free. 

AH: This reminds me of something Reitter and Wellmon write about at the beginning of the final chapter. They recount when Max Weber went to Northwestern in 1904 and was impressed by how all of the students go to chapel and patiently wait to be dismissed until they hear the football scores. Weber sees these varied habits as a distinctly different path to elude disenchantment. In Permanent Crisis, this anecdote highlights how the American university system was rapidly departing from this ideal. 

I bring up this moment because I happen to be reading Clyde Barrow’s Universities and the Capitalist State and Barrow cites Thorstein Veblen looking at the rapid transformation of American universities at this very same time. Barrow takes Veblen’s discursive observation about changes in university boards from ministers to businessmen as an invitation to track this concern. Barrow then finds that the discourse reflects a structural transformation in the control of these institutions by illustrating that to be empirically true for a number of institutions.

Thinking about Permanent Crisis, it strikes me that there is an opportunity for understanding the relationship between Schleiermacher saying “universities should be an ethical counterweight to the state, but nevertheless need material support from the state” and the degree to which that maxim speaks to the conditions on the ground. That’s ultimately a different book, one more explicitly tied to practice and institutional form. Still, this book provocatively invites us to consider the history of this discourse and its gestures towards the material histories it discursively indexes.

Tim Burke (TB): Before the Germans show up in the book, there’s a discussion of the rise of early modern humanism. There’s a naming in their discussion of this history, an attempt to create humanities methods. Their point with this is to save people who are attempting to participate in a conversation between humanists at a distance through text and letters from the need to go through the university as an institution or to be subjected to “charismatic teaching,” a singular person. That could be read as an abstracted discourse, but the way that they describe it, it’s actually tangibly material. It is about imagining a different relation between men of letters across large geographical spaces that allows those men to be independent of an economic relation to a particular institution. 

That can be extended to the German material, too, or even the way we think about the present. Is crisis talk, for example, the maneuvering of rivalrous interests, not only in the institution, but between the Prussian university and the Prussian state? That has to be made materially tangible somehow.

Rachel Buurma (RB): This relation to practice and materiality and Andy’s thoughts on the Clyde Barrow book made me re-read the postdiscipline humanities passage. When I first read it, I thought that this is not just a postdisciplinary humanities, nor is it a post-institutional one. 

Corporatization in the academy is totally shaped by those professors who want to become friends with the boards of trustees. They are the ones that create the AT&T Institute for Humanistic Studies for Executives at Penn and other related programs. These are the extensions of the multiversity. For these people, crisis talk is not only postdisciplinary, but also a post-institutional thing. As Reitter and Wellmon begin this section, “Despite its centripetal force and increasing monopoly over what counted as authoritative and expert knowledge, the research university never fully captured what the modern humanities claimed as their own: the faith and hope people placed in art, literature, and philosophy.” 

TB: In a sense, this conversation suggests that there is a reading in which this book is a prologue to another inquiry, a sort of fumigating of space. 

RB: I think that’s what this is. It seems clear that part of their model is that the scholarly book allows them to talk about their conclusions in more informal and public forums. Some of those conclusions manifest in other forms, such as the work Chad has done on the curriculum at UVa and in these public events.

Andy Hines (AH): This raises really interesting questions about the monograph and its own value. Rachel, in your book with Laura Heffernan you make an argument about teaching’s capacity to produce knowledge inevitably distinct from traditionally authorized research forms. Events and conversations around a monograph are by extension an additional form of knowledge production, even if the monograph takes up lectures and writings as its primary examples.

RB: Right and in that respect this is also not critical university studies, nor is it the kind of managerial higher ed studies work. So something seems to be developing here.

AH: It feels like a resurgence of a form of intellectual history that has not been at the center of critical university studies discourse. 

TB: In that sense, it reminds me of Science Under Fire, which goes over some of the same terrain, in fact, in conservatives setting humanism against scientism in the university. That’s a book with an account of intellectuals talking to intellectuals at an abstracted level from the public culture and infiltrating and circulating through scholarship. 

Tim Burke (TB): Another interesting question that is related to Rachel and Laura’s book: when does calling people to a sense of how inaccurate their received understanding of the historical depths of their reigning mythologies about their own practices actually unseat those mythologies? I would say very rarely. 

Those mythologies arose not due to error—an inaccurate understanding that is corrected due to accuracy—but as a response to some institutional lens in which those discourses are a way to move resources. That’s another account where you need practice to discuss why crisis talk has any efficaciousness to it. They suggest that it’s self-defeating, but I’m left not knowing the terms of the dispensation of resources or power in the Prussian institutional context.

If you want to dislodge that, I’m not sure that historicizing it and exposing to people they hold a false understanding of the contemporaneousness of their sense of crisis actually works.

Andy Hines (AH): This makes me think about the political polarity of crisis discourse. In the 1930s to 1950s American context, there is the intense rise of a version of conservatism made possible through humanities discourse. I can’t help but think of the Southern Agrarians, a group which has interested me for a long time because it is both reactionary and crisis driven. But what I have come to find is that this discourse comes to prominence only through aligning with structural changes also underway. 

Nancy MacLean, for instance, somewhat controversially connects the Virginia school economist James Buchanan to Donald Davidson, one of the primary Agrarians, at a pivotal moment in Buchanan’s development. Buchanan later becomes central in forging a distinctive connection to tuition (and debt) as a disciplinary measure, which Melinda Cooper describes, and it highlights how a certain type of discursive nostalgia tied in part to humanities crisis talk can align and gain force with economic and state priorities, which in turn gives credit to that discourse. This story highlights how crisis talk is deeply situated within external forces to it that grant it the capacity to articulate a perhaps fleeting form of what constitutes a given crisis. 

TB: If we want to stay at the level of the model of doing intellectual history of texts and intellectuals talking to each other without the interference of other loops of other conversations or other kinds of material conditions, on the one hand you could say that the power of this historicizing is just the sheer pleasure and astonishment of saying “oh my gosh, there’s somebody saying something just like what I said” and then you feel guilty by what you said. That’s valuable. 

On the other hand, if we stick to that literary model, crisis talk regardless of its strategic aims in a particular moment is associated with tropes that can’t help but be reactionary on some level. Even if the intention isn’t that way, the whole cloud of meanings around it are always going to be exactly what Reitter and Wellmon want to avoid, along with Weber—and I’m all with them in avoiding it. This talk will always be about a world we have lost, a past order that is vanishing, a thing that used to be good and is now becoming bad. There are left versions of crisis talk, but it still is sitting there as something easy to wrench toward a sense of betrayal and loss. 

I remember Perry Anderson reacting to 9/11 writing that all of these people were panicking about how “they” are threatening our freedoms when last year the same people were convinced that neoliberalism had already threatened their freedoms. Nothing has changed. In other words, a rejoinder on the left to crisis talk is to say that in order to have a crisis you have to indemnify the relatively recent past as a better time in one way or another. 

Rachel Buurma (RB): Or, to imagine—and this is the other part of Permanent Crisis—that it shouldn’t hurt too much actually to get rid of the modern humanities, the modern research university, or the humanities in the modern research university. 

This is another common response to crisis talk, right? The humanities haven’t really been around that long, they have a very specific institutional and historic formation, and people are still going to enjoy creative work. They write, “a sense of crisis helped transform disparate disciplines and forms of knowledge into a cultural project now known as modern humanities.” In other words, we get the modern humanities that relate to nineteenth century German ideas of unity that heal these divides and overpromise because they are set up to do this big piece of cultural and social work in the university. They continue, “It has also blinded humanities scholars to the paradoxical relationships, competing goods, and varied ends that have characterized the creation and transmission of knowledge for centuries that the most trenchant crisis thinking has frankly confronted.” 

TB: That would be one version of a more progressive way of talking crisis. It says in effect to the person talking crisis that they are misidentifying themselves with the entirety of some cultural and social formation when in fact they are a relatively unimportant part of it. If the thing they are defending about themselves through crisis talk were to disappear, nothing really bad would happen except to them.

RB: Or, nothing really bad will happen because they’re misunderstanding the type of knowledge transmission people like themselves have been doing for centuries. Misidentifying that one is a humanist is not a super important part of the work.

TB: The work they will do will go on, even if it is no longer identified as “the humanities” in this formation that has been described.

RB: People making this point in a casual way aren’t assuaging the fears of people writing scholarly monographs. Implicitly, as a humanist, the person talking crisis claims that their objects of interest and care are creative works that people make, not their own. 

AH: It also may not be dangerous to some crisis prognosticators because they are part of an elite intellectual class insulated from everything else by design, a construction which Permanent Crisis tracks a bit. The Germans want to ascribe a lot of power to that particular group for steering the state, but we know in our own present that this is a vanishing class position, even if it never had the power that it rhetorically carried. 

TB: This is where the tangible and material details matter, because the political economy of the Prussians they discuss moved through the university. These people were highly mobile in terms of moving from university to university; they also had a way of getting money from lectures as well as from patrons. 

The mode of nineteenth century intellectual life that moved in and out of things that represented the university was also significantly different and more heterogeneous than that brief post-World War II moment in the U.S. academy, which forms the backstop of the tenurati’s despair. That group is mourning a brief moment of the relative normalization of an academic life as a well-paying professional career that had tremendous stability that went on for maybe a generation and a half. The group of people doing this mourning are not doing it with the people who are the primary victims of the crisis in material terms. The crisis already happened.

The crisis is done in terms of most academic labor. So, as Reitter and Wellmon suggest, the crisis continues for the sense of tenured faculty to represent the threatened typical, when they are in fact now a remnant of an already destroyed order. They are throwing a pity party for themselves when in fact they are the least piteous figure in the institutional world. 

This is important because it means that crisis talk in the Prussian academy in the nineteenth century—if it is about a political economy attached to valuing intellectual work—then it is a different political economy than the one today’s tenured humanist is bemoaning.

AH: In that case, there’s still a crisis, but a dynamically contingent one.

About the Author

Rachel Buurma is the Director of the Aydelotte Foundation and an Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College.

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Timothy Burke's main field of specialty is modern African history, specifically southern Africa, but he has also worked on U.S. popular culture and on computer games.

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Andy Hines is the Senior Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He is the author of Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University .

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