Thank you—No Offence Meant! The Humanities in Splendid Isolation

 

From our “Wilde 13” section.

 

“Thank you for your kind introduction,” “Many thanks for your stimulating comments,” “Thank you for those further references,” “Thank you, I shall happily take up your suggestions.”—Thank you, thank you very much, thank you so much. Such empty phrases seem almost inevitable on the conference circuit. They are written into our academic breviary already from our earliest student days.

 

 

Encapsulation

But what exactly lies behind such formulae? Is it not commendable that colleagues treat each other with respect? Is it not welcome that one can do and say exactly as one pleases, as long as one remains undisturbed? Somewhat more heretically, expressions of gratitude at conferences could be said to reflect the secret wish to remain unruffled at the lectern, by leaving the previous speaker equally unperturbed. Yet this non-aggression pact touches on the very relationship with the wider public, that is, how one establishes the relevance of one’s subject within and beyond its cycles of reproduction, if it is established at all. That especially those disciplines with a strong theoretical bent tend toward encapsulation lies in the very nature of their language, but not solely. Considering a non-academic audience as addressable no longer seems self-evident in the humanities. Today, theory is seldom exported to other subjects or areas of life, that is, other fields of thought and methodological domains.

Like Moths to Light

Recently, a memorable event occurred at a conference in Berlin on the historical functions of the humanities book. A young historian of science was giving a paper on various modes of theory. His historising account of certain thought styles at German universities impressed the audience with its pithy remarks, well-deployed visual aids, and elegant rhetoric. The conference was organised such that each paper was followed by a response. Most respondents routinely thanked the speaker, before launching into a talk of their own. On this occasion, though, something out of the ordinary happened. After lavishing some fatherly praise on the speaker, an elderly scholar of German Studies launched into a feisty diatribe against his younger colleague’s style. The older scholar extrapolated some juicy passages from the younger man’s previous essays, including one in which left-wing academics were said to be attracted to Niklas Luhmann, that “jet-set Christian Democrat,” like moths to light. Whereas such rhetorical distancing made pleasant reading, the older man maintained, it was barely appropriate to the subject. Now, one may wonder, is juicy, palatable prose at all admissible? Is there a place for metaphors, employed as ironic stylistic signals, in serious research? The “style police!” exclaimed a professor of history from Lucerne. Noticeably disconcerted, the incriminated young cultural studies scholar attempted to defend his partly feuilletonist style. Referring to his forthcoming book, he admitted that he had struggled to find an “appropriate” tone, which would have done justice to both the dignity of his (theoretical) subject and its anecdotal potential.

Willemsen, Precht, Sloterdijk

Although the older scholar’s somewhat clumsy criticism of style may seem outmoded, it nevertheless prompts discussion. Such exasperation about scholarly language leads one to wonder which types of intellectuals are active in German public life. There are those who have dropped out of academia, voluntarily or not. These include the likes of Roger Willemsen, who convincingly marries his hidden talent as a showmaster with intellectual prowess. Another example is Richard David Precht, whose urge to educate a wider audience is to the detriment of scientific accuracy, but whose broad appeal is unrivalled in the humanities. And then there are figures like Peter Sloterdijk who have strayed from the narrow institutional path and remain largely unknown outside academic circles. Some professors, like Harald Welzer, with a dedicated line to German feuilleton journalism now exercise their minds as diagnosticians of our times. But where in this spectrum are scholars specialising in German Studies or in the history of theory and ideas meant to position themselves? Which aims might they pursue? And, above all, which language ought they use?

Anti-public Writing

The age of bourgeois book-learning has certainly come to end. Theory building, moreover, no longer seems linked to a political culture of experience as it was during May 1968. Does this divorce spell a definite retreat of the humanities to the intimacy of their own field, which has long lost contact with non-academia, because it no longer considers the relevance of its pursuits to those beyond its confines? Not even ten per cent of the turnover of state-subsidised non-fiction books is generated by book sales, as someone pointed out at the Berlin conference. So although the production of scientific prose has reached unprecented levels, it escapes the attention of the lay public. Given the sheer amount of academic publications, this need not be symptomatic of cultural decline. And yet it is doubtless absurd that quite so much is written for an anti-public, notoriously and unquestioningly.

What, one may ask, does this have to do with the self-gratifying reassurances traded between conference participants, which make such occasions resemble a nature reserve? A great deal. Because gratitude, as mentioned, can also amount to a tacit agreement on inaction.

 

 

References

  • Kaube, Jürgen: Denken zwischen Mülltrennung und Notaufnahme. Über das wissenschaftliche Sachbuch, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung v. 16.3.2012, online [German].
  • Foucault, Michel: L’Ordre du discours, Paris 1971.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre: Homo academicus, Stanford University Press 1990 (French 1984).

 

External Links


Image credits
Tagungsraum eines Schlosses. © Thomas Bornschein (2007) / Pixelio.de

Translation (from German)
by Kyburz&Peck, English Language Projects (www.englishprojects.ch)

Recommended citation
Teutsch, Katharina: Thank you—No Offence Meant! The Humanities in Splendid Isolation. In: Public History Weekly 2 (2014) 20, DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2014-2108.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Oldenbourg Verlag and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact: julia.schreiner (at) degruyter.com.


Categories: 2 (2014) 20
DOI: dx.doi.org/10.1515/phw-2014-2108

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1 reply »

  1. In the fall of 2007, Barbara Weinstein, then president of the American Historical Association, took umbrage at an assault on modern historical writing by Sam Tannenhaus in the New York Times [1]. What affronted Weinstein most in Tannenhaus’ critique of modern historical writing was that in arguing for a more accessible form of historical writing, Tannenhaus was, in Weinstein’s view, trying to lead historians back to a time when only the narratives woven around white males held sway. Or, to put it another way, the scientific specificity that historians now bring to their writing is one way we guarantee that the voices of those who do not rule are also part of the fabric of our historical consciousness. If only things were as simple as Tannenhaus and Weinstein wish they were…which is why I appreciate Katarina Teutsch’s commentary on the state of historical writing in Germany.

    Historians, wherever they may be, care passionately about language. Words, specific words, are vitally important to us because they can tell us much about why things happened (or didn’t happen) they way they did in the past. Since the end of the Second World War, academic historians around the world have crafted a new and ever more scientific and theoretical vocabulary that allows us to be very precise about what we are saying about that past. This is a good thing, because the more specific we can be, the more clearly we can define our analysis.

    Alas, every positive development has its negative side. In the case of modern historical writing, the negative is that the more scientific and theoretical our work becomes, the more unintelligible it is to readers who do not have advanced training in our discipline. And so our audience (and impact) shrinks with each passing year.

    Where is the proper balance? I submit that it lies somewhere between the “self-gratifying reassurances” we so often hear at conferences and the bland over generalizations we so often find in works of historical scholarship written before the mid-1960s. But it is the case that most recent works of serious historical scholarship have become so jargon heavy that very few readers can make sense of the author’s ideas and analysis. Like Katarina Teutsch, I see that as a problem we have to solve, sooner rather than later.

    References
    [1] Barbara Weinstein, “The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Historians?,” Perspectives, (September 2007): http://historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2007/the-case-of-the-incredible-shrinking-historians. – Sam Tannenhaus, “History, Written in the Present Tense,” The New York Times, March 4, 2007: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/weekinreview/04tanenhaus.html

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