Amateur Humanist

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More than stories

How does one explain the common work of the humanities, or more narrowly, of the academic humanistic disciplines?  A common device is to say that the humanities are all about the stories a culture invents and circulates, that their main concern is with giving voice to every person’s story and recording the stories that have had the widest reach.

This emphasis on story makes a certain sense and helps make the work of the humanities appealing.  The idea decently well articulates the work of many scholars of history and literature, arguably the two humanistic disciplines with the widest reach, and reflects a democratizing impulse that is attractive, for every person and organization and family has a story to tell.  Some have argued that the impulse to narrativize is quintessentially a human one, as central to human experience as language or politics or violence, and in a mass mediated age storytelling may now be the paradigm experience of the broader culture, having eclipsed the central historical work of journalism with its short-lived interest in information over entertainment.  Certainly the suasory force of narrative film and television and novels far eclipses other human endeavors.  Stories amuse and educate, shape and frame political contests and profoundly attract audiences and their sustained attention.  In rhetorical studies scholarship, and this was reflective of wider similar efforts across the humanities and in ways that have largely survived even the skepticism of meta-narratives induced by postmodernist thought, some have argued that our species is best understood as homo narrans, all of us story telling animals.  Because stories are ubiquitous, perhaps they encompass everything important about humanistic scholarship.

I disagree with such a view and find this move in the public rationales offered for the humanities concerning and often trivializing, even as I understand the value narrative talk has in popularizing or simply translating humanistic work for wider audiences.  Stories organize human experience but even the sophisticated vernaculars of narrative theory and analysis do not encompass the full range of the most accomplished work done by museums and universities and libraries.  If a master term has to be defended, I would prefer to defend the humanities as rooted in the central importance of inquiry or argument, which is to say they find their most significant expression in processes of controversy and intellectual contestation that vary depending on one’s disciplinary perspective but which are the precursors to understanding even story itself.

The idea that the humanistic disciplines are argumentative communities, first of all, simply more accurately captures their reach.  philosophy and theology and linguistics and law all connect to story, to be sure, but they more completely connect to traditions of argument and analytical thinking than to modes of narrative analysis and their central interest in plot and character. In a mundane way this point of view was, I think, vindicated in my own field of communication studies by the fact that the chief defender of a narrative perspective on communication in the 1980’s, Walter Fisher (now emeritus at the University of Southern California), when working through the difficult question of how one distinguishes a better from a weaker story – he was vexed at the time by the fact that the American public seemed so easily persuaded by the demonstrably fictive stories told by Ronald Reagan – turned for standards not to the theoretical resources indigenous to narrative theory but to those of informal logic.  Fisher said that a story could be defended as better than a rival if it was more coherent and possessed a more complete fidelity to the world as understood by its audience.  But these tests are the inheritance of informal logic more than literary analysis.

It wasn’t that Fisher was wrong to focus on the central cultural importance of narratives, and even those who disagreed with his strong view that story is the chief conveyance of our humanity (he was the chief defender of the homo narrans idea in the rhetorical scholarship I mentioned earlier) were often persuaded by his point that a culture’s decisions often make more sense when read as stories with all their twists and turns and pathos and apparent irrationalities than the cold fallacy-busting impulses of formal logic.  And narrative analysis does, it must be said, provide a rich and ever-improving vocabulary for the analysis of public interaction.

But the easy dominance of stories in American culture is the very reason to be wary of reducing the humanities to narrative analysis and all the more reason to focus instead on improving the practices of everyday argument.  This is so, in my view, despite the fact that argumentation itself conveys a complicated and controversial legacy:  even the norms of civil argument are often rightly criticized for their patriarchal and hyper-partisan impulses and the extent to which an emphasis on teaching people to argue creates a Crossfire culture when what we really need are fuller norms of collaboration and cooperation.  And argumentation can be elitist in other ways, a game best played by opponents absurdly revved up to decimate their opponents, who achieve such skills only as products of a culture where divisions of wealth and educational access create very limited opportunities for leisure and training in expensive activities like contest debating.

Surely these criticisms have to be engaged.  But if we abandon thoughtful argumentation as the foundational intellectual practice of the humanistic disciplines, we also abandon the greatest impulses of the educational humanistic enterprise itself, namely, the culture of intellectual disputation that made the German and Jesuit and before those the great Arab universities such energetic centers of scholarly achievement,  The norms of reasonable deliberation are harder to defend to political audiences than the more intuitively appealing idea that history departments and museums, for instance, exist to collect and safeguard people’s stories.  But that is not what historians or curators mainly do; rather, like philosophers and literary critics and linguists and theologians, they marshall evidence and make claims and back them up with warrants and well justified inferences to make the case for this story over and against its alternatives, for this idea over that.  The pervasiveness of everyday argument one hears in talk radio on topics as wide-ranging as whether Obama or Clinton or McCain should be president, or, whether Glavine or Maddux have more credible cases to baseball immortality than Roger Clemens provides a counterweight to the view that publics are invariably more seduced by stories than they are interested in the give and take of argumentative engagement predicated on the elaboration of detailed information. Argumentation and its discipline-specific configurations are thus rightly the central intellectual apparatus of the humanities.

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