Thursday, 10 March 2011

Optimism? or, A Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

Lisbon, Portugal, during the great earthquake of 1 November 1755, mentioned by Voltaire in Candide: or, Optimism (1759). Original copper engraving held by: Museu da Cidade, Lisbon. Reproduced in: O Terramoto de 1755, Testamunhos Britanicos = The Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, British Accounts. Lisbon: British Historical Society of Portugal, 1990. (public domain image)

Today, DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES is delighted to publish the introduction to a timely, and meticulously argued, Manifesto for our cause authored by Dr David McCallam, Reader in French Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of Sheffield.

Below is the first instalment. The remaining five sections will appear daily from now on, beginning with 'Possible Worlds' tomorrow. [Also see further instalments: 'Ethos', 'Work',  'Equality' and 'Autonomy'.]

A Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities: 
The Example of Candide


In Autumn 2010 both the Browne Report and the coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review concluded that state funding for universities in England had to be slashed by 80%. For university arts and humanities subjects, this effectively means that 100% of their public funding is to be wiped out in a single stroke. In a crude attempt to backfill the gaping deficit produced in their finances by this decision, universities are thus forced to ramp up student fees, tripling them from their present level to as much as  £9,000 per year per student. These will be payable from Septembr 2012 onwards. In other words, public investment in universities (taxes) is to be replaced by private debt (fees).

It’s easy to see here just further evidence of a concerted ideological assault on public services (councils, health, police, etc.), each in turn to be broken up and tendered out to private contractors. More proof of a deep-rooted political drive towards privatization; a sharp shift from the engaged citizen towards the entitled consumer… While the effects of this ‘neo-liberal revolution’ in higher education, as it has been called, have so far been localized, and occasionally personalized (Sussex, Middlesex, KCL, Bristol, Glasgow, etc.), it will not be long before they are savagely felt across the entire sector, with no institution likely to escape unscathed. Nor is this egregious development peculiar to the English university system. In fact, if this can happen in England – engine of the world’s fifth largest economy, home to some of the world’s best universities, yet soon to have the world’s most expensive higher education – then other countries should seriously sit up and take notice.

Writing in the wake of the Browne Report, James Vernon made a very telling, prescient point. In the face of this unprecedented and unconscionable attack on the university as a civic institution, and particularly in response to the casual depreciation of its arts and humanities education, now more than at any other time before, we need ‘to rearticulate the purpose and role of the humanities in ways which justify renewed public investment in them’. Or again: ‘The defence of public universities is intricately tied to arguments that can establish the public value of the humanities’. This Manifesto is one such attempt to rise to Vernon’s urgent challenge.

So what is this Manifesto? In essence, it is a vindication of the arts and humanities as the most valuable of social and cultural practices. And it is overtly partisan, as all good manifestos should be (as Stendhal allegedly said, I have too much taste to be impartial). Its principal points are distilled into five Articles. But each Article is also the conclusion of one of five subsections – entitled ‘Possible Worlds’; ‘Ethos’; ‘Work’; ‘Equality’; ‘Autonomy’ – each of which combines reflections on the public value of the arts and humanities with specific reference to an exemplary literary text. That text is Voltaire’s inexhaustibly intelligent Candide, or Optimism. The choice of text is twofold. Firstly, it is a return to the Enlightenment sources of our current dilemma: to the eighteenth-century establishment of universal values (equality, justice, toleration), a contemporary cultivation of critical autonomy and a nascent democracy of feelings – all of which went hand in hand with the emergence of global markets, the rise of state bureaucracy, and a new rationalist faith in technology. Secondly, and more facetiously, the choice of text is a wilful provocation to those who like to dismiss classical ‘literature’, (scornfully pronounced li-rit-cha) as the acme of preening pointlessness, as the epitome of effete self-indulgence. And as if to drive the point home, this literature is on ne peut plus fran├žais.

So here are, in brief and upfront, the five Articles of this Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities:

Article 1°

At the heart of societies keen to foster tolerant multiculturalism, the arts and humanities provide an essential and unique site for negotiating and experimenting with linguistic, philosophical and cultural plurality.

Article 2°

By increasing our capacity for empathy, the arts and humanities make us ethically more aware and aesthetically more alive; and they do so through forms of language (dissenting, citing, chatting) which often defy institutional control.

Article 3°

Publicly funding the arts and humanities recognizes that all our collective activities are grounded in just that: col-lectio, a shared reading or interpretation. The reader is then a viable alternative model of the worker, and the arts seminar a vital alternative mode of production.

Article 4°

University arts and humanities classes constitute a genuinely democratic space, founded on the equality of intelligences of their members; at once levelling and empowering, they are the workshops of citizenship.

Article 5°

By educating us to be self-aware and critically autonomous, the arts and humanities ensure that we are less likely to collude in our own oppression; equally, they best equip us to manage society’s increasingly frequent crises of representation (political, economic, cultural, rhetorical, visual).

Each section, and each article, is followed by brief suggestions for further readings, unashamedly in both French and English. (There are no footnoted references - this is a Manifesto, after all, not an academic article).

For this Introduction, proposed further readings might be:

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