Posts Tagged ‘humanities’

Culture, it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen because they dramatized the immobility of a nineteenth-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality (which, of course, is where we’re heading again). Robert J. Shiller, past president of the American Economic Association, focused on “Narrative Economics” in his address at the January 2017 Allied Social Association meetings in Chicago. His basic argument was that popular narratives, “the stories and models people are talking about,” play an important role in economic fluctuations. And just the other day, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro—professor of the arts and humanities and professor of economics and president of Northwestern University, respectively—economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus and practiced “humanonomics.”

Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m all in favor of opening up economics to the humanities and the various artifacts of culture, from popular music to novels. In fact, I’ve been involved in various projects along these lines, including the New Economic Criticism, the postmodern moments of modern economics, and economic representations in both academic and everyday arenas.

And, to their credit, the authors I cite above do attempt to go beyond most of their mainstream colleagues in economics, who treat culture either as a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or as a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

But in their attempt to invoke culture—as illustrative of economic ideas, a factor in determining economic events, or as a way of humanizing economic discourse—they forget one of the key lessons of Raymond Williams: that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

In fact, that’s the approach I took in my 2014 talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montréal.

As I explained,

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

I then went on to discuss a series of cultural artifacts—in music, film, short stories, art, and so on—which give us the sense of how things might be different, of how alternative economic theories and institutions might be imagined and created.

Importantly, economic representations in culture are much wider than the realist fiction to which some mainstream economists have turned. One of the best examples, based on the work of Mark Osteen, concerns the relationship between noncapitalist gift economies and jazz improvisation.* According to Osteen, both jazz and gifts involve their participants in risk; both require elasticity; both are social rituals in which the parties express and recreate identities; both are temporally contingent and dynamic. Each of them invokes reciprocal relations, yet transcends mere balance: each, that is, partakes of excess and surplus. Osteen suggests that jazz—such as John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”—may serve as both an example of gift practices and a model for another economy, based on an ethos of improvisation, communalism, and excess.

I wonder if economists such as Piketty, Shiller, Morson, and Schapiro, who suggest we include culture in our economic theorizing, are willing to identify and examine aspects of historical and contemporary culture that point us beyond capitalism.


*Mark Osteen, “Jazzing the Gift: Improvisation, Reciprocity, Excess,” Rethinking Marxism 22 (October 2010): 569-80.


I often tell students that, if they don’t change their major five times before they settle on one, they’re not really taking advantage of what college has to offer. They need to try out different ideas and areas and see where it takes them. It’s my attempt to push back against pressure from many sources for students to choose a major quickly and stick with it, and to focus only on how much they’ll earn after graduating based on what they study.

As it turns out, performance-based funding [ht: mfa] is going to ramp up that pressure and shut down alternatives for many college students, especially in the humanities.

When the Kentucky governor, Matt Bevin, suggested last month that students majoring in French literature should not receive state funding for their college education, he joined a growing number of elected officials who want to nudge students away from the humanities and toward more job-friendly subjects like electrical engineering.

Frustrated by soaring tuition costs, crushing student loan debt and a lack of skilled workers, particularly in science and technology, more and more states have adopted the idea of rewarding public colleges and universities for churning out students educated in fields seen as important to the economy.

Most of the push toward performance-based funding in public education is coming from Republican governors and state legislatures. But it’s also coming from inside the academy itself. One example is Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor who apparently runs the Center on Education and the Workforce. Here’s his gem of an idea:

“You can’t be a lifelong learner if you’re not a lifelong earner.”

And, yes, that is an example of sarcasm.


There is no doubt, for those of us who work in and around institutions of higher education, that the university is dying.

Terry Eagleton has been making that argument for a long time. Now, he’s making it in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: ja], with his characteristic incisiveness and wit.

Eagleton’s argument is about the death of the British university but much of his analysis holds for the United States as well.

Universities, which in Britain have an 800-year history, have traditionally been derided as ivory towers, and there was always some truth in the accusation. Yet the distance they established between themselves and society at large could prove enabling as well as disabling, allowing them to reflect on the values, goals, and interests of a social order too frenetically bound up in its own short-term practical pursuits to be capable of much self-criticism. Across the globe, that critical distance is now being diminished almost to nothing, as the institutions that produced Erasmus and John Milton, Einstein and Monty Python, capitulate to the hard-faced priorities of global capitalism.

Much of this will be familiar to an American readership. Stanford and MIT, after all, provided the very models of the entrepreneurial university. What has emerged in Britain, however, is what one might call Americanization without the affluence — the affluence, at least, of the American private educational sector.

But Eagleton, I think, focuses a bit too much on the decline of the humanities, as if English and art departments were the only source of critical thinking. Better, it seems to me, is to identify and analyze the crisis of critical thinking across the length and breadth of the university—in economics as well as English, anthropology alongside art. Critical thinking in all the disciplines is disappearing as “Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.”

The death of critical thinking in and across all its disciplinary forms is the real death of the university.


The humanities (and, with them, liberal education more generally) are being savaged by neoliberal reform. The question is, what kind of argument can and should be made to save them?

Nicholas Dames believes that, if the humanties are “anti-instrumentalist, and their collective work is to give us lenses for seeing otherness,” they represent a de facto critique of neoliberalism.

If we take the argument a step further, we face the possibility that the humanities are actually countereconomic; the notion of alterity and sympathy, taken seriously, would undo the profit motive and put a fair amount of grit into the workings of economic activity. It would undermine the individualism upon which exchange, in its current forms, is based. It would be critical. It would give parents of undergraduates good reason to worry.

However, on his reading, Martha Nussbaum’s defense of the humanities (in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities) actually relies on the argument that the humanities foster good business skills.

Postindustrial economies rely on exactly the kinds of skills humanities departments teach: intellectual flexibility, detachment, an understanding of pluralities or difference, creative skepticism. This is scarcely news to anyone 
anymore. . .

The problem is that this business-friendly argument sits uneasily next to her broader argument about alterity and sympathy. And in the gap between the two arguments lies the humanistic dilemma. Do the humanities teach “skills,” or do they lead us to critique the instrumentality of skills-as-such? Do they trouble our relation to economic activity, or do they equip us to be ideal technocratic employees?

Not attempting to resolve that dilemma is one reason why the humanities (and, with them, the various forms of liberal education) are burning.

Traditionally, the U.S. academy supported cultural production, through university presses and by providing editorial facilities and subsidies to literary and humanities journals. Now, in the corporate university, that is all changing. University presses are increasingly moving to a for-profit model, which means they publish fewer academic titles and more coffee-table books. And cultural journals face declining support.

Dan Latimer, the editor of the Southern Humanities Journal, understands the situation well:

One would think that a liberal arts dean would be a bastion of dependability at such times, and there may indeed be some who are. Yet an editor knows that a visit to the dean’s office, hat in hand, is the most melancholy visit that he can ever make. With the adoption of the business model for the university, beauty seems far less crucial than contracts for asphalt, or outlandish administrator salaries, which have not yet reached the level of Wall Street opulence, or for that matter arthropodal proliferation of the administrator class as a whole, whose top-down style seems to function mainly to terrorize faculty with post-tenure review and to cut the budgets of editors.

The new corporate university no longer provides a hospitable environment for disseminating the kind of literary and cultural work—literary criticism, fiction, poetry, art, and so on—that is mostly unavailable in the mass media.

As Anis Shivani explains,

Literary journals are one of America’s most precious institutions. Emerging writers typically make their mark first in the literary journals. Unlike commercial publishers, literary journals tend to push the boundaries of writing, and don’t get as carried away by literary fashions. Their long perspective is indispensable in maintaining a necessary balance.

Such journals are either being forced to close or to move to commercial publishers, thereby undermining their original mission. This is a tremendous loss for writers, artists, and all of us.

Mark Tansey, "Derrida Queries de Man" (1990), oil on canvas

Justin Wolfers bemoans the lack of influence of economists in the humanities.

His evidence? A list of the books most often cited in scholarly humanities journals (compiled by Thomson Reuters’s ISI Web of Science for 2007) in which only one economist appears (Marx, to which Wolfers attaches the qualifier “sort of”). Not surprisingly (for anyone who knows something about the humanities) the list starts with Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida and continues on with the names of philosophers and, much to the chagrin of Wolfers, social scientists (sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and anthropologists)—but not other economists.

Wolfers asks, why? He discounts one explanation, that economists don’t write books. The problem, of course, is that mainstream economists don’t read the books that are foundational to the discipline, such as Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Keynes’s General Theory. They mention them but don’t read them. Ever.

The only other explanation he can come up with is political:

Political perceptions may be part of the story: For some reason, economics is perceived to be a somewhat right-wing discipline.

But, he admits, that can’t be the whole story. (And, really, he doesn’t understand why economics is seen as a right-wing discipline?)

The fact is, many of the people in the humanities do economics and write about economics—they regularly use economic concepts and discuss economic theories and issues—but they don’t do and write about economics in a way mainstream economists recognize to be “economics.” As I explain in the introduction to Economic Representations, scholars in other disciplines often use concepts and approaches—like biopolitical production, postindustialism, immaterial labor, and the political economy of excess—that are entirely alien to those trained within the “official” discipline of economics.

Mainstream economists, for their part, don’t read or engage with the ideas—whether on economic or noneconomic themes—produced by such scholars as Foucault, Bourdieu, and Derrida. How many mainstream economists use or can intelligently discuss ideas such as orientalism, discourse, hegemony, and deconstruction? (A true story: I once presented the introduction to Economic Representations to a gathering of economists and a few of them had the temerity to criticize my use of the notion of discourse, as being too difficult or having multiple meanings. In comparison to what, I responded, economists’ idea of equilibrium?)

The fact is, some economists DO engage with the humanities, for example, utilizing the ideas of literary theorists to analyze economic texts and issues, and discussing the work of humanities scholars who write about economic ideas and theories. To see how this works, Wolfers and interested readers might start with two books: The New Economic Criticism: Studies at the Interface of Literature and Economics, edited by Mark Osteen and Martha Woodmansee; and Postmodernism, Economics, and Knowledge, edited by Jack Amariglio, Stephen Cullenberg, and myself.

Or Wolfers and Co. can just persist in their willful ignorance of all the fascinating work that is being done within the humanities and at the intersection of the humanities and economics.