The social utility of art and scholarship

Links via Stuart Elden’s blog

Geoffrey Galt Harpham notes the following (citation via JJ Cohen at In the Middle)

[Research is] an immense undertaking in which countless people performing the most tedious small tasks are able, collectively, to liberate the modern world from the grip of doctrine, authority, and myth. The value of each contribution can, he says, be measured only in the aggregate, and in many cases only much later: many scholarly or scientific projects are like abandoned mines, awaiting rediscovery by future generations. … Redundancy is the price we pay for other, less measurable but very real benefits. But we should be concerned about the mind-set that sees the past as inert, the humanities as old knowledge, and scholarship as the problem. [1]

I find this a wonderfully inspiring and optimistic statement. Often one worries as a writer or researcher that one has nothing to contribute to an already massively overcrowded field and that neither can one ever hope to measure up to the standards set by major artists and scholars who stand out through their innovation and immense productivity. Further to this, are the problems of navigating the enormous bureaucratic and ideological pressures exercised on those teaching and conducting research in universities at present.

Harpham argues that every little bit counts and is worth the effort: an approach that one also finds in Foucault’s work. It is the optimistic view that every human action, every human investigation makes a difference, no matter how tiny. Certainly, at present, concerted mass efforts are required to resist the logic currently in evidence in every social sector: a logic which seeks to organise systems into immovable and well-oiled mechanisms which work well for a few, but less well for a great majority. A logic which also seeks to convince people that their contributions are of no value, reducing them to inaction and despair – a condition which makes them easily tractable – ‘passive and docile bodies’ indeed!

[1] Geoffrey Galt Harpham “Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on ShakespeareQui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, Volume 20, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2011, pp. 109-116)

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