On March 30-31, 2023, the National Academy of Arts & Science hosted its symposium on “The Heart of the Matter at 10: The Past and Present of the Humanities” — an event themed around the tenth anniversary of the Academy’s The Heart of the Matter report. For the event, 4Humanities co-leader Alan Liu recorded a talk on “Reframing the Humanities as Useful” (18 min. 30 sec.).
Building on findings of the WhatEvery1Says (WE1S) project he directed (including findings recently reported in an article he and his team published on “What Everyone Says: Public Perceptions of the Humanities in the Media” in the National Academy’s Daedalus journal), Liu argues that moving the humanities further into the sphere of perceived “use” requires reframing them so that they overlap more fully with the creation of productive relations between people and things, individuals and society, and the ordinary and novel (or innovative) that are vernacularly associated with the “useful.”
In regard to bringing people into relation with interesting or useful things, for example, why do the humanities appear to the public to work with so few objects (the things, structures, and sites that humanities scholars passionately explore in their research but leave to others to show in museums if they are shown at all)? How did the humanities come to seem to be only about “professors giving talks” and scholars concerned with just one kind of object: books?