This shift left a huge number of previously beloved intellectuals—the old guard of art and literature and history—feeling pressured, sometimes by their own colleagues, to justify their continued existence in terms of the present-day job market. The stinging irony of the whole situation is difficult to dismiss: The very people demanding to know why English and art-history departments weren’t doing very well were often the people who’d helped drive students away from those departments to begin with.
Back at the hotel bar, I got wrapped up talking to a graduate student named Matt Langione, who studies literature at Berkeley. Next to all the poorly matched blacks and grays—which are the universally accepted sartorial currency of humanities professors trying to look cool—he stood out in a snappy tie and blazer. Matt has the kind of self-assuredness and charm that makes his casual use of words like “autotelic” and “proto-conceptual” sound perfectly natural. He is somehow erudite without ever seeming condescending.
He told me he was studying modernist literature (e.g., James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound) by, of all things, studying neuroscience. The novelty of Matt’s studies, it seemed to me, encapsulated the craziest thing of all about the whole “crisis of the humanities:” The conversation about funding for the humanities somehow manages to proceed in complete isolation from the actual practices of today’s humanistic scholars.
Matt’s doctoral thesis is a great example of this: He claims, in essence, that literary modernism’s insights about the relationship between abstract thoughts and tangible objects are now being understood by neurological research. “This thesis of Ezra Pound’s that poetry should yoke ideas to particular objects—so that the thing and the thought are brought together in a single manifold,” he said, “actually anticipates a very recent neuroscientific insight, which is that, in certain aesthetic states, processing and perception happen in the same cortical centers of the brain.” Matt’s big idea, in other words, is that literature sometimes comes to important conclusions about the nature of consciousness and reality before science can catch up. “The point is—and this is a major claim of literary theorists—that literature allows us to feel our way around insights that we don’t yet have a clean, conceptual articulation of.” By his logic, then, the way to drive science forward might be to fund the study of literature.
As part of my quest to prove my hotel-bar hunches, I also spoke with my good friend John Harpham, a graduate student in the government department at Harvard University. John is the author of three academic articles on the legacy of slavery, and his dissertation will focus on its intellectual history. He’s the kind of guy who enjoys thinking deeply about the likes of Abraham Lincoln.