Monday, January 08, 2007

Biology and History 1

English professor Brian Boyd critiques the state of English departments- expect more essays like this in the weeks after the annual MLA conference. I like his essay overall, especially as it gets at some issues I've been exploring in History writing.

First he notes Lous Menand's complaint that there is too much conformity in the English discipline. New scholars tend to repeat the ideas of older scholars without much willingness to challenge the old guard. "He laments the “culture of conformity” in professors and graduate students alike. He notes with regret that the profession 'is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself." I've noticed the same thing in historiography, with newer monographs uncritically repeating theories from Benedict Anderson, Foucault, or Gramsci without really questioning them. Even when these theories don't work, I notice that people seem more willing to misread their primary sources than question their borrowed theories.

Then Boyd challenges Menand's belief that the humanities needn't reach out to the sciences, particuarly biology for intellectual material. Boyd is a bit hard on Menand here:

"Well, Professor Menand, you, and those you speak for, are wrong."
(You can imagine him jabbing an accusatory finger here.)

"Until literature departments take into account that humans are not just cultural or textual phenomena but something more complex, English and related disciplines will continue to be the laughingstock of the academic world that they have been for years because of their obscurantist dogmatism and their coddled and preening pseudo-radicalism."

I like that he's willing to sling mud a bit, although I'm personally not swayed by the 'laughingstock' argument. Sometimes, I think we have to be a bit 'obscurantist'- or at least, that there is a difference between the challenging language of Kant, which really does express very challenging ideas, and the challenging language of Lacan, which really seems to me to hide a lot of horseshit. Also, I think we've all met a few engineering majors for whom the humanities will always be a 'laughingstock', since they produce nothing profitable.

That aside, I love biology and have been working on an essay that would explain Burke's ideas of the sublime in relation to a specific sort of neural operation. Will it work? I don't know, but I think it's worth a try. So, I'm all for the suggestion that biology and history should be talking to each other, as we both focus on human beings.

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