These must be truly apocalyptic times if there is a need to explain why the humanities matter.
Theodor Adorno’s famous phrase, “no poetry after Auschwitz”, comes to mind, as well as Walter Benjamin’s idea that there was no document of culture that was not as well a document of barbarism. Adorno was a humanist reflecting on his own times. He lived in days defined by that catastrophe of the 20th century, the “Final Solution” or “Shoah.” A well-known German philosopher had once asked a similar question after reading a famous German poet: “why poets in times of despair?”
So this need to explain why the humanities matter and these responses, these very words the reader now reads are part of a new—yet not so new—document of barbarism, because we have come to accept as normal that our fellow human being requires an explanation of why the study of the human endeavour is important. It is an essential question in the most literal sense. But it is a fact: the humanities are in danger because those people essential for their practical functioning have other priorities.
“Humanities” is a very general term that refers to the enquiry into what makes us human. Why are we here? What do we do with the time we have on the world? What is our relationship with the planet and the tools and products of human ingenuity, physical dexterity and intellect? What can we learn from the past and the present in order to have a better future for all? These questions have been replaced by what is perceived as more immediate problems, such as how to make more money for the happy few or how to preserve the privilege of the already-privileged.
We humanists naturally resist that line of thought. Part of our job now is figuring out what went wrong that allowed this new forgetting of the human self.
(Ernesto Priego was born in Mexico City. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at The Department of Information Studies, University College London.)