Dissociation and the Public Humanities

Part of what I do as a professor of English and American Studies is work at projects I call “public humanities” projects.  In this space today I want to think about the ongoing sense of dissociation or dissonance that I often feel in this work, and in particular the dissonance between what I often refer to as my academic work and this public humanities work.  I suspect that many of us feel this way, although it isn’t often commented on, much less conceptualized.

I have over the past several years worked on several museum projects and literary festivals that are meant to appeal primarily to a non-academic audience.  The basic idea is that these “public humanities” events will somehow bridge a gap between the academic public sphere and a more general, mass public sphere.  This hope, I realize, is the hope of many of us professors, and, indeed, it’s a hope that seems essential not just to the future of the humanities but also to the shape of citizenship, community, democracy, the future more generally.

But this attempt at bridging often leaves me with a sense of failure, one that I suspect is common.  The work I do under the auspices of public humanities often seems attenuated, lacking sharp critique.  It comes off feeling a little like sloganeering or that I’m simply repeating what I know the audience wants to hear.  Part of this has to do with different genres of communication – say, the academic essay and public talk – that require different kinds of discourse and allow for different kinds of knowledge production (perhaps this gap will be shrunk somewhat through digital visualization and other genres being developed in the digital humanities).  The gap between academic and public humanities is also of course created by the gap between audiences where one values very highly critique and the other values . . . It hard to say what the other values.  I’ll come back to this in a moment.

I find that in response I dissociate.  I speak and even think in one idiom in one context and another in the different context.  This dissociation is in part a form of pragmatism and can be rationalized in that way, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay close attention to it.  In this respect, I find tremendously inspiring Julie Ellison’s essay “The Humanities and the Public Soul,” especially:

“One of the most important outcomes of public scholarship in the arts and humanities, therefore, can be the reconciliation of hope and critique. Hope is a practice, just as critique is a practice. We can become skilled in hope, without abandoning the necessary energy of skepticism.”

Maybe this gets at the central impasse causing my dissociation.  More than the effect of different genres and more than different publics, my dissociation is a result of the inability to reconcile hope and critique.  Public humanities projects are often about hope, and public humanities work requires all the things hope requires: intense identifications, an idea of the future, an understood relationship to the good life.  Academic humanities are about critique (and hope too, hopefully), and all that goes with that: disidentification, often an intense focus on the past, and a skeptical view of the good life.  It’s hard to practice both at the same time.

The closest I’ve gotten to some sort of way of bridging the two was the other day at a panel called “Jack Kerouac at 90: A Discussion of His Life and Influences,” held at the National Park in Lowell.  The panel was put together by a colleague of mine and was designed for a general, non-academic audience as part of the celebration of Kerouac’s 90th birthday.

What I found interesting about this panel was that two of the three panelists pretty explicitly offered pictures of Kerouac as a kind of saint.  Not an actual saint, but someone whom we audience members might emulate or at least learn from because he offered us knowledge of universal truths.  Interestingly, for one of these speakers Kerouac was a kind of Catholic saint who suffered for our sins, and for the other speaker he was a kind of Protestant minister who guided us in questions of faith.  The third speaker wasn’t so religiously specific as the first two, but he did make Kerouac into a sort of Wandering Jew, associated with Ginsberg and Dylan and other subterraneans.  All of this – this deeply religious identification with Kerouac – was brought home to me when one of the first questions from the audience for the panel involved whether or not Kerouac’s body should be exhumed in Lowell and “returned” to his family plot in Nashua, NH.

This panel was both a strange and enlightening experience. The audience seemed to love it.  What it brought on for me, at first, was an intense sense of dissociation.  It is difficult to figure out how to connect this conversation with the kinds of conversation that might circulate around Kerouac in the academy.  There was little critique.  But it did occur to me that one way of addressing the dissociation is to take these responses to Kerouac very seriously.  They do after all have a great deal to teach about the ways we identify with authors and their work, and the ways these identifications bring meaning to lives, offering a sense of the future and the good life.  The model here for the scholar is something like the work of Jane Tomkins on sentimentalism or the branch of cultural studies which has paid close attention to the uses of texts and the responses of readers.  Perhaps the theoretical arm of the public humanities needs to do more theoretical and practical work on reception of knowledge.

No one really likes to become the object of the anthropological gaze.  And this is a danger here.  The gaze keeps the dissociation in place in many respects.  But the anthropological gaze is also about taking the values, identifications, and hopes of very different audiences seriously.  This seems like a fruitful step in a practice that reconciles hope and critique.

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