17 February, 2013Issue 21.3ClassicsNorth AmericaPolitics & SocietyThe ArtsThe Humanities Debate

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Blow Up Media Studies

Emma Park

Blow Up The HumanitiesToby Miller
Blow Up The Humanities
Temple University Press
172 pages
ISBN 1439909830


In writing this review let me at once lay my cards on the table and admit that I am a classicist. Classics is one of the humanities subjects which Toby Miller uses as a byword for elitism, empire, the establishment, and other such enemies of progress. I hope to be forgiven, therefore, for the partisanship, not to say brazen jingoism, which will undoubtedly mar my response to a book which has, at the very least, good intentions.

Unlike Miller, who rarely looks before the 19th century, I would trace the modern idea of the ‘humanities’ back to the 1st century BC. According to the orator Cicero, there is a “common bond” linking poetry, history, philosophy, rhetoric, and “all the arts which pertain to humanity”: they give us pleasure and they provide us with illustrations and reflections on how to live a good life.

Higher education has come a long way since Cicero defended the humanities of his day before a jury of prosaic, success-oriented Romans. Some subjects, like rhetoric, are no longer taught in their own right; others, like English literature and film studies, have been controversial new additions to the syllabus. Most strikingly, in the last couple of centuries, medicine, mathematics, and the study of nature have been reclassified in a new category of ‘sciences’, whose spectacular capacity to improve life or destroy it has rather overshadowed such humble relations as theology and metaphysics. Plus ça change: once again, politicians and the public are demanding to know the practical value of literature, philosophy, and other non-vocational, essay-based subjects whose foci are humanity and its arts. Miller’s book is an attempt to answer them, albeit not in a way that will please many of the subjects’ practitioners.

Toby Miller is Professor of Cultural Industries in the Centre for Cultural Policy and Management at City University in London. Prior to that he was Distinguished Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. His introduction tells us that he “wrote the initial draft of this book in a little over two months after waking up on what some people call Christmas Day and thinking, ‘There’s a book here. It’s called Blow Up the Humanities… That’s cheeky.’” In fact, the book purports to be not merely cheeky but revolutionary. It calls for the overthrow of the “élite humanities,” such as literature, history and philosophy, and for their replacement by the more “egalitarian” forces of media and cultural studies. The title is also intended to suggest “‘blowing up’ not just in an incendiary way but as a ballon d’essai in need of inflation”, although Miller does not elaborate on this obscure statement.

No true humanist would deny that profound thought could as well occur in cultural studies as in classics, or that televisions and computers could be as effective artistic media as marble or written words. If Blow Up the Humanities (“BUH“) was a call for media and cultural studies to take their place next to literature and philosophy, it would be doing no more than underlining the widespread academic recognition which has already been given to these subjects. But BUH makes a more radical claim: “the push for the study of media texts that reflect issues of consequence to the broad population can be central to renewing the humanities.” Media and cultural studies should be elevated to the status of paradigm humanities subjects because they are the disciplines most “relevant” to everyone who is not a professional academic or cultural fascist. It is the general public, their attitude to the humanities, and government funding insofar as it reflects their wishes which will determine the humanities’ future—and more people are interested in media and culture than in literature and history.

Put like this, the claim already seems suspicious. Media and culture are among the objects of literary and historical research, even if those disciplines adopt a different perspective from that of media and cultural studies. It is not so easy to separate the disciplines as Miller would like. And, as becomes quickly apparent, his views are shoddily argued and barbarously expressed.

Miller argues that humanities scholars must put more effort into writing “with the public in mind”. However, his own book can hardly have been written for a wide audience. It is peppered with long lists of statistics and references to other media studies scholars and cultural theorists, such as Valdivia on the Feminist Multicultural Classroom and Ritzer and Jurgenson on the Nature of Capitalism in the Age of the Digital “Prosumer”. These people are doubtless stars in their own fields, but to the outside world they are, like most academics, obscure. Measured solely by referential density, a less-accessible book could hardly be imagined.

Perhaps BUH was intended as a challenge for elite philosophers, historians, and literary critics. Certainly, it wantons in French, Latin, and Greek quotations, sometimes incorrectly (“ethoi [sic] of social Darwinism”). Miller also reveals a penchant for the prodigious offspring of ill-matched buzz-words, such as cognitariat (“legitimizing the precarious employment of the cognitariat”), cybertarian (“the cybertarian utopics of the technological sublime”), and collegecrat (“collegecrats constructing themselves as corporate mimics”). Alliteration and assonance abound ad nauseam: “people fish, film, fuck, and finance from morning to midnight”. So do jeux de mots, whose ingenuity is italicised for emphasis: “the dilemmas are manifold and perhaps should have been manifest to me avant la lettre (or avant le cliché)”. There are even gratuitous misquotations of Shakespeare: “something is rotting in the state”. It is evident that Miller wants to write as pretentiously as the most self-indulgent of literary critics; unfortunately, he only sounds like a poetaster. His style might have benefited from consulting one of those elitist scholars he criticises—or at least a dictionary.

I suspect though that most elite scholars would put the book down (if they picked it up at all) on page one, where Miller declares war on “the humanities of fancy private universities, where the bourgeoisie and its favored subalterns are tutored in finishing school”. This opening is self-righteous and unjust. It is true that the percentage of students from wealthier backgrounds at the highest-ranking British universities is still disproportionately high; the same is true in the US, the country on which Miller focuses.

However, the wealth gap in British and American society (from which these imbalances arise) is a deeply-rooted problem, which the universities have not created and which they cannot solve. Those who accuse them of elitism should face up to this.

Any elite scholar who decided to persevere with BUH beyond page one would drop it like a third-class essay on ethnomethodology by page four. Here, Miller suggests that the modern student can hardly be blamed for preferring to watch television or play “electronic games” than to read “a drug addict like Coleridge or Sartre, a philanderer (Augustine, maybe Byron?), or an anti-Semite–Pound or perhaps Gide.” Even if taken in a rhetorical spirit, this remark displays a lack of sophistication which can only be due to the clouding effects of political correctness on aesthetic judgement. Miller seems to assume that modern students would be deterred from ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ because Coleridge took opium or from ‘She Walks in Beauty like the Night’ because Byron deflowered virgins as enthusiastically as he wrote verse. I would have thought that such biographical details would make these poets, if anything, more rather than less interesting. Miller implies that modern students would be incapable of distinguishing between the elegance of “Papyrus” and Pound’s unattractive political views. But even if students arrive at university na√Øve enough to condemn a work of literature for its author’s failings, the aim of higher education is to make them more discerning, by enlarging their imagination and sharpening their critical faculties.

It is true that there are many things wrong with the humanities in British and American universities at the moment. In particular, as Miller suggests, they are seen by outsiders as effete and isolated, inextricably entangled in a self-fashioned web of omphalosceptic verbiage. What he does not acknowledge is that media and cultural studies too encourage this perception. The notorious Sokal hoax, in which an American physicist succeeded in publishing a nonsense article entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, was inflicted upon Social Text. This is a journal of post-modern cultural studies to which, incidentally, Miller himself later contributed an article, “Introducing…Cultural Citizenship”. The divide between Good and Bad humanities is not as clear as he implies.

In his apparently more conciliatory conclusion, Miller urges peace and solidarity in the form of a “new, refurbished, collectivist humanities” capable of “rebalancing our economy in a way that is credible to social movements, workers, and policy makers.” But this is not really a call for mutual respect among the disciplines. Rather, it is a demand that they all be harnessed in the service of narrow ideological goals.

Miller’s ambition is to substitute for “heritage and aesthetics” a brave new world of “comparative advantage and competition”, thereby liberating history and literature from their “banal reliance on aesthetic narcissism.” In doing so, he would deny to students and scholars the pleasure of intellectual discovery for its own sake, removed from the pressure of earning a living. This would not only impoverish the life of the mind in our society, but also hinder its capacity for new cultural creations. A more productive approach in this time of scarce resources and political ill-will would perhaps be for the humanities to support rather than lecture one another. But if Blow Up the Humanities is characteristic of its field, I am forced, in sheer self-defense, to respond with a counter-proposal: blow up media studies, and all the hackneyed, third-rate expostulating it is heir to. I do not mean this in the sense of a ballon d’essai. I mean it explosively.

Emma Park is Latin Teaching Fellow at Warwick University.