Fish's own philosophy of the academy is largely orthogonal to neoliberalism: he exhorts academics to"stick to your academic knitting", to"do your job and don’t try to do someone else’s", and to leave off"trying to fashion a democratic citizenry or save the world". Critics of neoliberalism, naturally, see such a perspective as backing up the power of university administrators (i.e., furthering neoliberalism in the academy). But Fish has also argued that"To the question 'of what use are the humanities?', the only honest answer is none whatsoever", that the humanities (including his own field of literary theory) are intrinsically worthwhile but will not contribute to the saving of the world or other political ends. That is not a persperctive that meshes well with the instrumental approach of neoliberalism.
As I explained in my first post to the now-defunct Revise & Dissent, my view is something along the lines of: if you're not trying to save the world, what's the point? Nevertheless, I mostly agree with Fish when he says we should not (in the name of academic freedom) erase the distinction between political action and scholarship (much less teaching). How, then, ought academics try to save the world? The most viable approach, I think, is through careful choice of what topics to apply the methods of one's discipline to.
Take the work of historian of science Steven Shapin. In The Scientific Life: A Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation (2008), Shapin explores the complex ideas of what it was (and is) to a be a scientist in the modern world. Despite media images where the academic scientist predominates, most scientists in the U.S. have been working in industry since the rise of the military-industrial complex in the 1940s and 1950s (and a large proportion were doing so even at the beginning of the 20th century). But the working life of the industry scientist is hardly the caricature of scientific management (squashing out the creativity and freedom that is a supposedly natural part of science) that has been circulating at least since the work of Robert K. Merton.
Although it's not explicit in the book, Shapin's work is a response to the trend of running universities like businesses. Successful businesses that revolve around original inquiry and research, Shapin shows, are a lot more like universities (pre-scientific management) than is generally appreciated. The implication is that, if universities are to be patterned after businesses, the appropriate examples within the world of business (as opposed to distorted ideas of business research that adminstrators might have) are actually not so foreign to the cherished culture of universities that opponents of neoliberalism in higher education seek to defend.
In his preface, in defense of his tendency in much of his historical work to address"the way we live now", Shapin says this:
"I take for granted three things that many historians seem to find, to some degree, incompatible: (1) that historians should commit themselves to writing about the past, as it really was, and that the institutional intention of history writing must embrace such a commitment; (2) that we inevitably write about the past as an expression of present concerns, and that we have no choice in this matter; and (3) that we can write about the past to find out about how it came to be that we live as we now do, and, indeed, for giving better descriptions of the way we live now."
In thing (3), I would replace can with should. Scholars have a moral responsibility to make their work responsive to the needs (as the scholars themselves see them) of the society that supports them.
That's a distinctly 1990s and 2000s perspective.
The term two cultures has entered the general lexicon as a shorthand for differences between two attitudes. These are
Snow's original idea bears only scant resemblance to the scientism vs. constructivism meaning. As he explained, literary intellectuals (not entirely the same thing as humanities scholars) didn't understand basic science or the technology-based socioeconomic foundations of modern life, and they didn't care to. Novelists, poets and playwrights, he complained, didn't know the second law of thermodynamics or what a machine-tool was, and the few that did certainly couldn't expect their readers to know.
Humanistic studies of science (constructivist worldview and all) would have undermined Snow's argument, but humanists were only just beginning to turn to science as a subject for analysis. (Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions was not until 1962. Structure did mark the acceleration of sociological and humanistic studies of science, but was actually taken up more enthusiastically by scientists than humanists. Widespread constructivism in the humanities only became common by the 1980s, I'd guess, and the main thrust of constructivism, when described without jargon, is actually broadly consistent with the way most scientists today understand the nature of science. It's not nearly so radical as the popular caricature presented in Higher Superstition and similar polemics.) Rather than humanists understanding the scientific method or scientists viewing their work through a sociological or anthropological lens, Snow's main complaint was that scientific progress had left the slow-changing world of literature and its Luddite inhabitants behind (and hence, scientists found little use for modern literature).
Snow wrote that"naturally [scientists] had the future in their bones." That was the core of the scientific culture, and the great failing of literary culture.
Looking back from 2009, I think history--and the point in it when Snow was making his argument--seems very different than it did to Snow. Who, besides scientists, had the future in their bones in 1959? In the 1950s academic world, literature was the pinnacle of ivory tower high culture. Not film, not television, certainly not paraliterary genres like science fiction or comic books. History of science was a minor field that had closer connections to science than to mainstream history.
Today, in addition to scientists, a whole range of others are seen as having"the future in their bones": purveyors of speculative fiction in every medium; web entrepreneurs and social media gurus; geeks of all sorts; venture capitalists; kids who increasingly demand a role in constructing their (our) own cultural world. The modern humanities are turning their attention to these groups and their historical predecessors. As Shakespeare (we are now quick to note) was the popular entertainment of his day, we now look beyond traditional"literary fiction" to find the important cultural works of more recent decades. And in the popular culture of 1950s through to today, we can see, perhaps, that science was already seeping out much further from the social world of scientsts themselves than Snow and other promoters of the two cultures thesis could recognize--blinded, as they were, by the strict focus on what passed for high literature.
Science permeated much of anglophone culture, but rather than spreading from high culture outward (as Snow hoped it might), it first took hold in culturally marginal niches and only gradually filtered to insulated spheres of high culture. Science fiction historians point to the 1950s as the height of the so-called"Golden Age of [hard] Science Fiction", and SF authors could count on their audience to understand basic science. Modern geek culture--and its significance across modern entertainment--we now recognize, draws in part from the hacker culture of 1960s computer research. Feminists and the development of the pill; environmentalists; the list of possible examples of science-related futuremaking goes on and on, but Snow had us looking in the wrong places.
Certainly, cultural gaps remain between the sciences and the humanities (although, in terms of scholarly literature, there is a remarkable degree of overlap and interchange, forming one big network with a number of fuzzy division). But C. P. Snow's The Two Cultures seems less and less relevant for modern society; looking back, it even seems less relevant to its original context.
The text of Biology Today was apparently assembled from the work of a long list of" contributing consultants". The list is star-studded, including James D. Watson and six other Nobel laureates (as well as Michael Crichton). The list--and the text--is dominated by molecular biology, which was reaching perhaps its cultural acme in the early 1970s.
A Journey Round My Skull has collected on Flickr many (but far from all) of the interesting and unusual"artist's interpretations" and other images that make Biology Today such a magnificent artifact. Many of the diagrams are outstanding both aesthetically and conceptually.
The most lavish interleaf illustration is supposed to depict the" central dogma" of molecular biology with a three-panel view into the holy of holies, the DNA-filled nucleus, and a two-panel view of nucleic acids making their way into the cytoplasm and translating genetic information into proteins:
Molecular biologists, by the 1970s, thought of themselves not only as the future of science, but of culture more generally. Many adopted the scientific humanism that had been championed by the previous generation of public biologists like Julian Huxley, although the mechanistic and cybernetic worldview of molecular biology, rather than the neo-Darwinism of Huxley and his allies, was their gospel. For intellectually- and sexually liberated biologists (like Watson), anthropology and sexology displaced parochial religious ideas, and science had nothing to offer religionists but contempt or pity. Behold Noah's Ark, from the chapter on"Human Sexual Behavior":
Evolution's role in this textook is a curious one. The only well-known figure who can be considered primarily an evolutionary biologist is Richard Lewontin, a pioneer of molecular evolution and a frequent critic of adaptationism, sociobiology, and much of mainstream evolutionary theory in the 1960s and 1970s. The chapter on population genetics, which introduces the mechanisms of evolution (and doesn't come until page 672!) looks like it was written by Lewontin; it treats, in turn,"genetic equilibrium","genetic drift","mutation","selection", and"multiple factors", with no particular emphasis on natural selection. Of course, whether one was a follower of the selection-centric modern evolutionary synthesis or not, Darwin was (and still is) the patron saint of biology:
But in Biology Today, veneration of nature, of the scientific life, and of humanity trumped veneration of Darwin. In the lyrical ten-page illustrated preface from biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi, there is a passage (one of many) that could never be found in a mainstream biology textbook today, when creationists have turned their energies (in the form of Intelligent Design) to molecular biology, rather than the organismal evolutionary biology that earlier generations of creationists (and evolutionists) focused on. Working his way up through the levels of biological complexity, Szent-Györgyi makes his way to the mind:
"I do not think that the extremely complex speech center of the human brain, involving a network formed by thousands of nerve cells and fibers, was created by random mutations that happened to improve the chances of survival of individuals. I must believe that man built a speech center when he had something to say, and he developed the structure of this center to higher complexity as he had more to say. I cannot accept the notion that this capacity arose through random alterations, relying on the survival of the fittest. I believe that some principle must have guided the development toward the kind of speech center that was needed."
For both cultural and scientific reasons, that's not something you would catch many biologists saying today.
Around 2001 is also the horizon for historians; for events after that, the archival richness of the internet accellerates from then until now in terms of the experience of ordinary people in major historical events and trends.
In that vein, here's a paper I wrote in 2005 for a course on narrative history with John Demos, about the usenet traces of the kinds of the thing Dave Winer reflects on from 9/11. (I tried to weave in the pop psychology framework of the five stages of grief, to mixed results.)
We historians like to think that things develop gradually. Yet, in the microcosm, the events of the following months and years were foreshadowed there in the cyberspace of New York City on September 11. All the questions of “why?” and “what now?” were hashed out in the hours following the attacks by net denizens as they struggled to come to grips with the grief of the nation.
After one hour thirty-six minutes of denial, the messages on the NYC General internet discussion group started with a comment calculated to jump-start conversation, going straight to bargaining:
Tues, Sep 11 2001 10:20 am
WTC: Bound to happen
I wonder if this will change our assistance plans to
Circumspection was the word for the first few replies; questions not answers. Who is sending us this message? Was it “internal” like the Oklahoma City bombing, or was it the Palestinians or someone else? Is it just a coincidence that this is the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Accords? Whoever it was, they were clearly well-organized; they knew they had to use large planes with full fuel tanks to take out the World Trade Center Towers.
Just after noon, they were on to bin Laden as the likely culprit; it seemed like “his style.” Rumors that he had foretold an “unprecedented attack” two weeks earlier, including information from one woman’s unnamed friend from the intelligence community, provided one focus for the rising anger of the discussants. Israel and the celebrating Palestinians on TV were also popular targets of ire. Anger got the better of more than one:
Tues, Sep 11 2001 2:05 pm
Anyone cheering at thousands of Americans being murdered is a declaration of war as far as I'm concerned.
Tues, Sep 11 2001 6:02 pm
Did you all see the Palestinians dancing for joy today?
SCUM. Burn them all.
Calmer voices prevailed quickly, defusing talk of an indiscriminate crusade. But few seemed to doubt that war was on the horizon, even if not everyone had a clear idea of whom (or who) to fight:
Tues, Sep 11 2001 1:51 pm
>>>This must mean war.
Any particular reason, or are you just starting [with] the A's?
The possible complicity of Iraq was mentioned as well, and the failure to capture Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War illustrated how hard it might be to get bin Laden (if he was even the right target) in an Afghanistan war. But waging war on the Taliban, at least, might yield some human rights dividends, considering the way they treated their women.
The depressing, fatalistic seeds of the prolific conspiracy theories that developed in the months and years after the attack were there in the first hours too:
Tues, Sep 11 2001 11:39 am
I would not think (but I'm NOT an expert) that such impact would so weaken the structure as to cause both to collapse, without further destruction at a lower level.
Tues, Sep 11 2001 1:22 pm
I am just pointing out that I don't think we can take out Bin Laden because if we could we would have done it long ago.
It would be months before online groups like the 9/11 Truth Movement would spin such speculation into elaborate tapestries of lies and manipulation, in which the strings are pulled by the man by behind the man behind the man (with three U.S. Presidents, at least, in on it), with bin Laden as the fall guy who was working for the CIA all along. But common sense prevailed quickly in this particular cyber niche; the combination of fire and impact would be able to take down the towers, with all that weight above the impact points, they reasoned.
Ultimately, the tension on the internet that day was between anger and acceptance, and with the bombers apparently dead and the looming possibility that there might not be anyone left to blame, the discussants turned on each other:
Tues, Sep 11 2001 8:10 pm
[On the subject of celebrating Palestinians and possible PLO involvement in the attacks]
>>Gosh, you don't suppose the Isreali blockade has anything to do with it, do you?
>And what does this have to do with just buying food???
Don't know how the blockade works, do you?
>>>They aren't feeding their people, giving them housing or water - no
>>As a matter of fact they are, as much as they can. But when Isreal takes their land
> Of, forget it. You're brainwashed.
This is coming from someone who can't tell the difference between the PLO and other arab organizations.
Tues, Sep 11 2001 8:31 pm
> I'm not the one advocating bombing anyone.
Ha. So you just want to let them do this and get away with it, eh?
This was the worst of that first 111 message-long thread—tame compared with many of the other virtual shouting matches that developed that afternoon. And ultimately, the feelings of anger won out on NYC General, coming into line with zeitgeist of the rest of the nation as President Bush announced plans to hunt down the terrorists and those who harbor them. But elsewhere on the internet, then and now, every possible response from denial to acceptance has a place. And the stories will still be there waiting for us, for when we are ready to move on.
 This and all following quotes come from the USENET archive of nyc.general, as archived by Google Groups (http://groups.google.com/group/nyc.general). This discussion thread was started simultaneously on nyc.general, nyc.announce, alt.conspiracy (where it superseded such hot topics as “Moon Landings: Fact of Fiction?,” but did not change that group’s absurdist conspiratorial tone), talk.politics.misc (which was rapidly inundated with separate posts, preventing any sustained discussion), and soc.culture.jewish (where the endemic Zionist/anit-Zionist rhetoric drowned out this relatively moderate thread), and soon spread to other groups, fragmenting and spawning new discussions. There are probably hundreds of preserved usenet discussions documenting the immediate response of thousands of people on September 11.
 Actually the Camp David Accords were reached on September 17, 1978, making 9/11 just shy of the 23rd anniversary.
[Cross-posted; sorry for the formatting issues]
Lewis joined thousands of other amateurs toiling in obscurity on Wikipedia, where facts are more important than the star historians who tend to dominate the popular view of history. On Wikipedia, anyone can be a historian.
I think this is suspect in a couple of ways (do"star historians" really dominate the popular view of history? what does"historian" mean in the Wikipedia context, where the policy is"no original research"?) but the spirit of the remark is right on, and relevant beyond just Wikipedia.
The history profession hasn't yet been much affected by the"pro-am revolution", but it's increasingly possible for amateur historians to do original work with professional quality (even if that work is unlikely to much resemble academic history writing). Some academic fields--astronomy is the most dramatic example--have already started benefiting greatly from the contributions of amateurs. But history seems slow on the uptake, with frustratingly little appetite for collaborative projects and little interest in taking the work of amateur historians seriously (the exciting projects of George Mason's Center for History and New Media notwithstanding).
Will that change dramatically? Will a pro-am revolution come to the history profession? The case of history of science may be instructive here. History of science has actually had a vibrant"pro-am" community (of scientists who write science history) since well before the Internet made relevant sources and publishing venues easily accessible to other interested groups of amateur historians. Nevertheless, historians of science have not drawn closer to pro-am scientist-historians in recent decades--just the opposite, they've withdrawn from scientist-historians and often dismiss their work as hopelessly naive or self-interested. If history of science is any guide, I fear that history as a whole may view the coming rise of"pro-am" history as more of a threat than an opportunity.