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Anton Pluschke & Remigius Bunia

Princeton, USA / Siegen, Germany
Humanities and Authority
Tuesday, 12th September | 14:00 – 15:35

Traditionally, the Humanities are closely associated with critical thinking. Not only in the striking cases of Critical Theory or Postcolonial Studies do the humanities understand themselves as the locus of critical and progressive thought, sometimes leading to critical and progressive actions. The entire 1968 movement was based on the institutionalized Humanities of its days (even though all achievements claimed by the movement had in fact been implemented by the establishment before). In their strange departure from scholarship towards “criticality” (Rogoff), the Humanities relied on the very foundation of the modern research university and its particular inter- as well as independence from the nation state (Clark; Mirowski). It is barely a coincidence that the Free University in West-Berlin played the role that it played in the European student risings; and it is even less of a coincidence that Adorno could be both the icon of a critical movement and the very embodiment of conservatism and authoritarian habitus.

Today, some scholars refute the idea of critique and never-ending criticism. “[C]riticism,” Rogoff explains, “is a form of finding fault and of exercising judgment according to a consensus of values;” hence there is little room for dissent since everyone must abide by the values. Barad recently declared that the Humanities train their students to “spit out a critique with the push of a button.” Felski even calls the humanities “doctrinaire.”

We’d take these statements seriously and ask whether the Humanities sustain and nourish authority. We claim that the Humanities have failed in transforming “traditional authority” into “charismatic authority­”—which is what, in Clark’s terminology, distinguishes the modern from the medieval university. They are stuck somewhere in between; and, intellectually, this limbo has not proved very productive.

However, their main task may be to be authoritarian in order to protect certain “values;” and their utter conservatism just follows from this function. We would analyze this stance by looking at professional evaluations of the past 50 years. Presumably the Humanities cling to traditional authority simply because this is precisely why society preserves them despite their lack of overt productivity.

We would then like to discuss the current crisis (not the crises the Humanities detect themselves, such as Avanessian who claims that, today, all scholars in Literature loathe writing texts, but do so to get tenure) and direct our attention to the recent rise of an authoritarian spirit in politics and the emergence of “fake news.” It might have been reasonable to reproduce authority in democratic systems due to their inherent instability. But as the famous example shows, many professors of the Weimar Republic endorsed Hitler quite early. Thus, if today democracy is challenged in the Western world, the Humanities could turn out to be an additional danger, habitually questioning the checkability of truth and upholding conformism. The entrenched modes of speaking out against governments have always been without benefit; they could now have an adverse effect if they further alienate people from the so-called establishment. We eventually posit that the humanities need to acknowledge their devotion to authority in its historical dimension and to rethink themselves if they strive for at least a little share in saving Western democracy (and hence, concurrently, also themselves).