Jesse McCarthy (left) and Caroline Levine.

Jesse McCarthy and Caroline Levine.

Niles Singer/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

Are humanities stuck in ivory tower? Should they be?

Two literature scholars wrestle over whether and how professors can engage with pressing political, social issues of day

5 min read

Caroline Levine sees a “strong insistence on inaction” among thinkers in the humanities, and she thinks it’s the wrong way to go.

The Cornell University literature professor argued these scholars need to take action on the climate crisis in a Barker Center discussion last week hosted by the Department of English. The event featured a lively back-and-forth between Levine and Jesse McCarthy, assistant professor of English and of African and African American studies, on whether the humanities have become too activist or not activist enough on the most pressing topics of the day.

Levine made clear her position that scholars in the humanities should take more concrete action, particularly regarding climate change.

“For some years, as the climate crisis has been accelerating, I’ve been trying to figure out what would count as meaningful action … what can we do to stop the worst from happening?” said Levine. “Turns out, this is a very unfamiliar question in literary studies.”

Levine pointed to arguments from a wide array of thinkers who advise against scholars taking political action. Among them: philosophers like Michel Foucault, who disagreed with imagining a better world; environmental humanists like Levine’s Cornell colleague Karen Pinkus who warn against the “tyranny of the practical”; and literary critics like John Guillory who argue literature is valuable without needing to serve a social mission.

Even science fiction and fantasy writers who envision a utopian future, Levine noted, often avoid laying out the steps society can take to achieve those ends.

“If you or I want to figure out how to act to address the climate crisis, all of these thinkers would deliberately and on principle refuse to give us any kind of guide or map,” Levine said. “To my mind, the implications of this are profoundly disturbing.”

She put the inaction in historical context, blaming, in part, academia’s long tradition of separating scholarly knowledge from the “rough and tumble of the world.”

“As far back as Seneca and St. Jerome, the scholar is supposed to have a kind of austere separation or detachment from the world in order to generate real knowledge,” Levine said. “We still see the footprint of that idea in the university today, and particularly in the liberal arts college.”

McCarthy disagreed with Levine’s claim that humanities scholars oppose active engagement.

“We’re interested in interpretation,” McCarthy said. “For us, interpretation is necessarily open-ended. If it weren’t, not only would it be politically very dangerous, but it would cease to be recognized as humanistic inquiry to us. We’re interested in the plurality of the possibilities of interpretation of the aesthetic object or the open-endedness of something.”

Levine countered by asking why open-endedness must be humanists’ only value.

“What is the open-endedness for? How much can it do for us?” Levine said. “And what are the other things we could do with this set of literary and aesthetic objects?”

Levine believes inaction in the humanities is harmful and furthers the interests of the fossil-fuel industry, which has long used public relations campaigns on recycling and carbon footprints to place the burden of ending climate change on individual consumers, rather than on corporate polluters.

Humanities scholars can map a better way forward, Levine suggested, by applying the methods of “formalism” (an approach literary critics use to subject texts to close analysis of language and structure) to the social and political world.

For example, happy endings in hard-luck stories like “Oliver Twist” sketch out a vision of characters’ successful continuance in the future. Real-life happy endings can also sketch out an optimistic path forward, like how the success of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott propelled the continuance of the modern civil rights movement, Levine said.

Similarly, the literary trope of the “struggling team” seen often in films like “Coach Carter” provides models for organizing people into resilient changemaking collectives.

McCarthy pointed out that it’s possible for literary forms to inspire practical action without having to be pragmatic or solutions-oriented themselves. For example, the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” was a powerful part of the Civil Rights Movement despite having lyrics that focus on “one day” far in the future, McCarthy said.

“It’s infused with a tragic optimism born from the weight of a specific historical experience, and yes, those affordances brought collectives into being for practical action. But there isn’t an isomorphism between the form itself and the action that it inspired.”

Levine said in this instance she wouldn’t interpret the lyrics as a literary critic would, but instead think more broadly about the context of the form as a shared, repeated song.

“To me what’s important about the form of the spiritual is repetitiveness, that everybody knows it,” Levine said. “That they can join in the song is to bring bodies and voices together.”

Last week’s discussion, part of the English Debates series, was held with the goal of using the literary space to address important and controversial topics in today’s culture.

“We are trying to show those who claim that in the humanities you can’t have vigorous debates anymore because everyone already agrees about everything — to show that that’s not the case,” said Martin Puchner, Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and of English and Comparative Literature, in his introductory remarks. “And to showcase the way in which English and other humanities disciplines can be brought to bear on some of the important issues of our time.”

Levine said she has learned from activist stories that the climate movement “doesn’t need more protagonists.” Making significant change like stopping the climate crisis depends on a group of “minor characters” working together to achieve one goal.

“That’s my idea of a happy ending,” Levine said.