New journal: Passions in Context

I just discovered a new online journal on the history and theory of the emotions called Passions in Context. It is a peer-reviewed journal that presents contributions from a variety of disciplines in English and German, and which was first published in the spring of 2010.

Th[e] growing interest in the history and theory of emotions is now both interdisciplinary and international. In particular in the English speaking world and in Germany are developing special centers for the research in the history and theory of emotions. Until now this interest has lacked a forum where contributions with such a wide orientation can be published. Passions in Context will be such a forum.

The first issue “Writing Emotions” featured an opening contribution by Barbara Rosenwein (via whose website I found the journal) on problems and methods in the writing of the history of emotions, as well as articles on staged feelings; emotions in collective viewing; pathos and atrophy. The second issue is called “Atrocities – Emotions – Self” and features the edited papers from the “Atrocities, Emotion, Self” conference that took place at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, in 2009. If I understand the timeline correctly, a new issue should be forthcoming this spring.



Cross-disciplinary study of the emotions

At VU University Amsterdam, we have recently opened a new centre for the cross-disciplinary study of the emotions and senses, ACCESS for short. The centre is the initiative of cultural historians (myself included) and an anthropologist. We hope to bring together academics from many more disciplines to exchange ideas on the study of the emotions and senses. The interdisciplinary symposium on the Transmission of Emotions that I am organizing on 10 February is one of the ways in which we aspire to stimulate cross-disciplinary activities, such as applications for funding of interdisciplinary projects.

The ACCESS ‘mission statement’ reads:

The Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies provides a platform for cooperation between scholars from the humanities, the social sciences, and the life sciences.

Recently the scholarly interest in the emotions and the senses has gained momentum through the ‘affective turn’ informing many new studies in different disciplines. ACCESS aims to enhance this momentum, creating an interdisciplinary platform between historians, cultural anthropologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and other scholars interested in the cultural production and expression of the emotions and the operations of the senses.

Our research rests on the presumption that both the experience and expression of the emotions and the senses are culturally informed. Different communities shape different sensory and emotional ‘regimes’. To quote Oliver Sacks: ‘culture tunes our neurons’.

 More information on ACCESS and its upcoming activities is to be found on the ACCESS website.


Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England

Disssertation Reviews is a new website that publishes friendly, non-critical reviews of unpublished dissertations, to give an immediate insight into new developments in scholarship. They used to focus on Chinese, Japanese and Korean Studies, but have recently branched out into “Science Studies” and are seeking editors to cover more fields in the humanities and social studies. Science Studies editor Leon Rocha invited me to write a review of Erin Sullivan’s PhD thesis on early modern sadness, which I very much enjoyed reading. The review will be published there shortly, and Leon kindly allowed me to reproduce the review here. Of course you should also visit Disssertation Reviews for more reviews of recent PhD theses.

Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England
A review of Secret Contagions: 
Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England by Erin Sullivan.

The history of emotions is a burgeoning field within cultural history. In recent years, a number of key publications have mapped out the beginnings of a theoretical and methodological framework, and academic centres on the subject are mushrooming around the world. Erin Sullivan’s thesis Secret Contagions: Sadness and the Self in Early Modern England is a valuable new addition to this growing field, not in the least because of its innovative approach to the exploration of historical emotions.

Readers in the early modern period were extremely interested in sadness and grief: the period has been called melancholy’s ‘golden age.’ A number of books exploring this early modern fascination with grief have appeared in the past few years, such as Angus Gowland’s Renaissance Melancholy (2006), Jeremy Schmidt’s Melancholy and the Care of the Soul (2007), Jennifer Vaught’s Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature (2008), and Gary Kuchar’s The Poetry of Religious Sorrow in Early Modern England (2008). Whereas these studies focus on particular kinds of sadness (melancholy, religious sorrow) and on particular genres of texts, Sullivan takes a wider contextual view by basing herself on a variety of sources ranging from plays and poems to doctor’s casebooks, diaries, and bills of mortality. In so doing, her rich thesis is able to show convincingly that multiple discourses of sadness (medical theory, moral philosophy, Christian theology) co-existed in the period, sometimes overlapping or conflicting with each other.

The thesis concentrates on the period between the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558 and the Restoration in 1660. It is not, however, the particulars of Tudor and Stuart monarchies or the trauma of the civil wars, but the aftermath of the Reformation that forms the dominant historical context for Sullivan’s argument. The new forms of Protestant religious practice that took shape in early modern England shaped their own discourses of emotional experience. Sullivan concludes that whereas medical and philosophical advice tended to see grief as a damaging and therefore dangerous passion, these new Protestant ideas considered sadness in a more positive light, as a means to come closer to God.

Sullivan is not only interested in the way sadness is shaped by these co-existing discourses. What I found particularly captivating is her fascination with the way individuals used these different discourses of sadness to make sense of their emotional experiences in their own (written) expressions and representations. Inspired by developments in anthropology as well as the work of historian Charles Rosenberg, Sullivan moves from the social constructivist framework current in emotion history towards a model of thinking about the passions that leaves more room for individual agency, “recognizing that social processes are messy and that they are affected by people, just as people are affected by them” (88). Her approach in this way combines three key concepts employed in the cultural history of emotions, which Sullivan in her introduction neatly characterizes as “a set of theoretical nesting eggs” (30): Carol and Peter Stearns’s ‘emotionology,’ which focuses on dominant emotion discourses in a historical period; Rosenwein’s concept of ‘emotional communities’, which examines how social groups employ these discourses; and finally Reddy’s ‘emotives’ which focuses on the individual expression of emotions (although he also relates that expression to ‘emotional regimes’).

The first chapter, “Sadness and dis-ease in early modern thought,” distinguishes between four categories of sadness shaped by three different discourses. In a philosophical context, grief was considered as a disease of the mind that needed to be overcome by reason; medical discourse saw melancholy as a disorder of the physical body; and godly sorrow and despair are categories of sadness shaped by religious discourse that were considered to originate from conflicts in a believer’s conscience that could only be healed by God’s grace (65). Even as she makes these elucidating distinctions, Sullivan stresses that these are dynamic constructions that often merged and overlapped. Just as the authors of treatises on the passions have often crossed disciplinary boundaries in their choice of their subject, so do these categories know many different permutations. The bodily nature of grief, for example, also played a part in philosophical and religious discourses. What is more, points of conflict existed also within these discourses themselves. In medical theory, for example, the Galenic humoral model was challenged by chemically-based systems of medicine such as that of Paracelsus. Sullivan therefore stresses the importance of a context-dependent approach to representations of sadness, an approach also that takes into account the way these ideas were used in personal practice. These discourses, she writes, “did not form a whole to explain passions: an individual’s personal attitudes towards sadness depended on her particular outlook on life, as influenced by factors such as religiosity, level of education, and social standing” (83). After the first chapter has thus mapped these overlapping discourses of grief, the following four chapters each deal with a different aspect of grief in the early modern period.

The “secret contagions” of the title are quoted from The Uses of the Passions (1649), a translation of a treatise by Jean-François Senault. He uses these words as he ponders the ways in which mind, body, and soul affect each other in the experience of emotion. The second chapter, “Grief, death and the possibility of self-knowledge,” takes this issue of the relation between body and mind as its central question, focusing on the idea that one could die of grief. Drawing on the London Bills of Mortality, Donne’s poetry, the plays of Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys’ diary among many other sources, Sullivan shows that although grief is on the one hand seen as a passion that results in extreme physiological changes and could lead to death, other texts conceive of it more as a passion of the mind and connect it to human agency and understanding, a perspective that also allowed for a more positive view of grief as enabling personal insight and wisdom. The finding that these two discourses co-existed leads Sullivan to nuance the recent emphasis on the literal, material and bodily meaning of expressions such as “sunken spirits” or “broken hearts,” for example in the work of Gail Kern Paster. Rather, she underlines that this material view of the passions circulated alongside discourses that situated the passions in the mind, and which questioned the extent to which they materially altered the body.

The next chapter, “The problem of melancholy: theory, discourse and practice,” starts once again from a contradiction within a discourse, in this case that of melancholy. On the one hand, this type of humoral sadness caused by a surplus of black bile is associated with self-obsession and self-indulgence, while it is on the other hand also seen as conducive to intellectual and artistic creativity. The central question in this chapter is how individuals “square[d] the commonly voiced, negative views of melancholy with its more desirable possibilities” (144). Sullivan turns first to literary texts such as Milton’s “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso” and Shakespeare’s As You Like It with its typical melancholic character Jaques, to find that literature tends to represent the ambiguous character of melancholy, showing its intellectual face but at the same time hinting at its negative aspects. She subsequently turns to doctors’ casebooks and patient narratives, to see how these two views of melancholy were experienced in medical practice. Sullivan discovered that doctors tend to associate the condition with rather mundane physical complaints, and that patients often turned to religion as a framework to explain their suffering and healing.

The final two chapters of the thesis explore the ways in which Protestant religious practice shaped new understandings of grief in post-Reformation England. In the fourth chapter, “Embodying faith: godly sorrow and the heart,” Sullivan again employs a broad range of sources including sermons, religious treatises, spiritual autobiographies, and the poetry of John Ford and George Herbert. She shows that in contrast to the prevalent conception of grief in medical and philosophical discourse, religious practice shaped a more positive experience of grief. As she puts it: “[t]he passive acceptance of sadness and suffering, believed to be sent from God, was one of the central ways in which believers could demonstrate to themselves and others the extent of their sorrow for sin, their connection with God, and their inclusion among the elect” (204). Interestingly, she also argues that in Protestant religious practice, the bodily aspects of grief were not eschewed: its understanding of grief was heavily based in notions of physical affliction. The heart, at once bodily and metaphysical in this discourse, functions as a reminder of grief’s “secret contagions”: the overflow between the bodily, mental and spiritual nature of sadness in religious practice.

Chapter five, “Tales of despair: narrative authority and interpretive possibility” establishes a fascinating link between the doctrine of double predestination and the notion of individual appropriations of existing discourses of grief that is so central to this thesis. Religious despair, if moderate, could be read as a sign of the elect, but in excessive form it was an emotion that pointed to the opposite. Because of this room for interpretation, “it became increasingly important that people wishing to identify themselves as among the godly narrated their experience of religious anxiety in a way that limited the potential for alternate interpretations” (249). In this thesis’ characteristic manner, the chapter turns to various expressions and representations of religious despair in a myriad of sources to explore the ways in which early modern believers narrated this form of sadness. In an entertaining example, Sullivan shows that attempts to relieve religious despair did not always have the intended effect. The anxiety generated by the doctrine of double predestination spawned a great number of works of “practical divinity” which sought to help their readers in identifying signs of their election by God. William Perkins published a “Table declaring the order of the causes of Salvation and Damnation,” which charted the various paths of life towards grace and reprobation (see illustration).

Perkins, "Survey or table declaring the order of the causes of salvation and damnation according to God’s word …”

The poem “The Distracted Puritan” (1648), however, suggests that these well-intended guides may have increased religious despair rather than relieved anxiety. Set to the tune of Tom of Bedlam, the speaker of the poem complains:

I observ’d in Perkins Tables
The black Lines of Damnation:
Those crooked veines
Soe stuck in my brains,
That I fear’d my Reprobation. (p. 281)

This is a wonderful example of what I consider to be one of the key strengths of this thesis: Sullivan’s attention to the ways in which the various discourses of grief were appropriated, combined, and reshaped by individual authors in early modern England.

Dissertation information: University College London, University of London, 2010. 348pp. Supervisors: Hal Cook, Andrew Wear, and René Weis.

The Transmission of Emotions

An Interdisciplinary Symposium

The Transmission of Emotions
An Interdisciplinary Symposium

Friday 10 February 2012, 12.30-17.30 hrs
VU University Amsterdam, Aurorazaal

‘The business of understanding the transmission of affect has barely begun’
– Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (2004)

How and why do we sense and share the emotions of others? The question of how we are moved by the feelings of others has long remained largely unexplored in psychology, neurology, and language research. It is only recently that various disciplines have begun to unravel the mechanisms of empathy, emotional contagion, and the operations of affect in watching a film or reading a novel.

This interdisciplinary symposium brings together three scientists who explore the transmission of emotions from different disciplinary perspectives: neurology, social psychology and psycholinguistics. Their lectures will introduce current knowledge of the transmission of emotion in these three fields. The symposium seeks to encourage interdisciplinary exchange on this broad-ranging topic so fundamental to understanding human interaction.

The speakers:

  • Christian Keysers (neurology): The emphatic brain
  • Agneta Fischer (social psychology): The regulation of social relations through emotional mimicry
  • Jos van Berkum (psycholinguistics): So what about emotion in language?

Click here to register (before 25 January 2012)

For more information, please see the ACCESS website or contact Kristine Steenbergh (k[dot]steenbergh[at]vu[dot]nl).

This event is organized by the Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies, sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research and the Faculty of Arts, VU University.

Illustration by Camilla Engman (

Conference: Cultural history of Dutch Emotions

Cool, Calm and Collected
The Dutch and their Emotions in Pre-Modern Times

Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag
4 November 2011

Registration by way of an e-mail to: info[at]knhg[dot]nl, or by telephone: +31 (0)70 3140363

The conference ‘Cool, Calm and Collected’ aims to enhance the burgeoning history of emotions in the Netherlands. Speakers at the conference will present their current research, integrating the study of emotional standards in advice literature with the study of actual emotional practices in ego documents, chronicles or archival sources. The fields covered will range from politics, philosophy and the urban feud to religion, the stage and the visual arts. The conference will not only be of interest to specialists in the history of emotions but also to the greater historical community.

Although the history of emotions was already suggested as an interesting topic by Lucien Febvre and Johan Huizinga it has been taken up seriously as a subject of historical study only fairly recently. Initially, historians limited themselves largely to the study of documents that prescribed emotional ideals and standards. Researchers are now going beyond such texts. They are currently identifying transformations in emotional ‘communities’ and ‘styles’ on the basis of letters, autobiographies and memoirs, as well as a variety of narrative, archival and visual sources. Historians are also emphasising performativity, what emotions actually do. At the institutional level, in Europe two important research centres have been started: in London the Queen Mary Centre for the History of the Emotions (Thomas Dixon, director); in Berlin the ‘Forschungsbereich Geschichte der Gefühle’ (Ute Frevert, director). This conference seeks to establish a more solid footing for the history of emotions in the Netherlands and join in with these international trends.

The speakers at the conference will discuss the emotional styles of the Modern Devouts and the cult of pugnacity in Late Medieval feuds. Focusing on the seventeenth century, they will reconsider the performativity accorded to the emotions in painting, the theater, and pietist religious movements. For the eighteenth century, speakers will analyse the Dutch ‘cult of sensibility’, the contemporary appreciation and navigation of the sentiments. The day will be closed with a lecture by Dorothee Sturkenboom. She is a pioneer in the study of emotions in the Netherlands and will relate the emotional history of the Dutch to contemporary and more recent views on their ‘national character’.

The conference’s keynote lecturer, the well-known English historian Thomas Dixon, will discuss the latest developments in the field.

The organisers: Wessel Krul, Herman Roodenburg, and Catrien Santing.

The conference will take place in the National Library of the Netherlands (KB) in The Hague.

The conference fee is € 30,- (€ 25,- for members of the KNHG and € 15,- for students and PhD students) and includes lunch. The conference fee should be transferred to account number 6934391 of Nederlands Historisch Genootschap in The Hague.

Registration by way of an e-mail to:, or by telephone: +31 (0)70 3140363.


9. 45 – 10.00                          Welcome Catrien Santing (Groningen University), chair

10.00 – 10.15                       Introduction Herman Roodenburg (Meertens Institute)

10.15 – 11.00                        Keynote lecture Thomas Dixon (Queen Mary, London)

                                                 History in British Tears: Some Reflections on the Anatomy of Modern Emotions

 11.00 – 11.15                        Coffee/tea

11.15 – 11.45                        Mathilde van Dijk (Groningen University),

                                                 ‘Just some silly Beguine’: being pious and showing it in the Devotio Moderna

11.45 – 12.15                        Matthijs Gerrits ( Leiden University )

                                                Anger and Feuding in the Late Medieval Northern Low Countries

12.15 – 13.30                        Lunch

13.00-13.30                          Annual Meeting Koninklijk Nederlands Historisch Genootschap

13.30 – 14.00                        Kristine Steenbergh (VU University)

                                                  Vondel and the Role of Emotions in the Public Sphere

14.00 – 14.30                        Fred van Lieburg (VU University)

                                                  The Use of Emotions by the Hotter Sort of Protestant

14.30 – 15.00                        Eric Jan Sluyter (Amsterdam University)

                                                  The Changing Representation of the Passions in History Paintings by Rembrandt and his Amsterdam Colleagues


15.00 – 15.15                        Coffee and tea

15.15 – 15.45                        Wessel Krul (Groningen University )

                                                 Phlegmatic Excitement. The Dutch and the Discovery of the Emotions in the 18th Century

15.45 – 16.15                        Edwina Hagen (VU University)

                                                 The Passionate Politics of Rutger Jan and Catharina Schimmelpenninck: Dialogue between the Head and the Heart.

16.15 – 16.45                        Dorothée Sturkenboom (independent scholar)

                                                The Dutch Temperament: An Enigma to be Explained…

16.45 – 17.30                       Reflections by Dixon, Roodenburg and Santing, followed by Plenary Discussion

17.30-18.00                         Drinks

Live conference blog


I am in Istanbul at the second conference on the Cultural History of Emotions in Pre-Modernity (the first was in Umeå, Sweden, in 2008). A very broad range of historians of science and medicine, literary, legal, cultural historians and anthropologists have met here to discuss the cultural history of emotions up to and including the nineteenth century. I took along my iPad to do a bit of conference blogging.

Because the historical periods and cultures discussed range from classical antiquity via medieval China to eighteenth-century Copenhagen and the emotions under scrutiny are just as varied, it is hard to sketch out general ideas or conclusions reached at the conference. The theoretical frameworks from which the cultural history of emotions is approached are also different. The most often referred to is Barbara Rosenwein’s concept of emotional communities and their specific words. What all contributors do agree on, is that at least part of what we now call an emotion is culturally determined and therefore different across space and time.

In his keynote paper “Beyond Emotion,” William Reddy (author of the seminal book The Navigation of Feeling) started from this idea. He remarked that although emotional vocabularies are complex and culturally specific, we usually can find ways to translate specific emotion terms. As an example, he compared Stoic ira with Ilongot liget. Even though these two cultural concepts of anger are poles apart, Reddy argued that we are able to see that they have a shared core. (I wonder if this applies to all emotion terms – there are of course the oft-quoted examples of emotions specific to one culture only, such as Japanese Fureai.)

What is the cause of this overlap in meanings, this shared core of two culturally different interpretations of an emotion?

Continue reading

Statistical Panic

Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

Some time ago, I switched our car insurance over to a different company. After a week, the new company mistakenly and quite spontaneously cancelled my policy. I called them to ask what happened, and was told that I had requested the cancellation by phone myself. When I expressed my surprise and told them I most certainly requested no such thing, the woman on the other end of the line very politely told me to keep my temper.

I was relieved to find that there is a term for the way I felt during and after this phone call. It is an example of what Kathleen Woodward calls “bureaucratic feeling,” a phenomenon increasingly common in our everyday lives.

Bureaucratic feeling, like statistical panic or compassion for cyborgs, Woodward argues, is a ‘structure of feeling.’ In  Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams introduced this concept to describe the interpenetration of personal feeling and social structures. Woodward uses the concept to think about the relation between such a seemingly personal emotion as the desperation of anger caused by a call to your insurance company’s help desk, and larger social structures. In the first half of her book, she analyses the connection between affective experience and identity politics (gender, race, age). It is especially in the second part of her book that Williams’s concept comes to the fore, as Woodward explores ‘new feelings’ created  by emerging social structures. In fact, she argues that the experience of an emotion can lead to insight into these larger structures. The example she uses to explain this process is the moment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when she finds herself doodling a nasty sketch of a male professor, realizes she drew it in anger, and then analyses her own feelings:

A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom — all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. [Online source]

In Woodward’s view, emotions are neither purely interior, nor purely social: the psychological phenomenon of anger is here caused by the social oppression of women: a social structure shapes an inward feeling. In the second part of her book, Woodward shows how bureaucracy and the ubiquitous use of statistics shape postmodern feelings of anger and panic.

The style of writing, by the way, reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s because of its personal tone. Woodward makes a plea for telling stories in literary criticism and appeals to us to abandon the argumentative style she describes as “professional cool.” The recent emotional turn in literary and cultural criticism might even have been caused by the feeling of emptiness generated by the expository argument, she thinks. In Woodward’s own case, her turn to the emotions was caused by an experience of great personal grief and the subsequent realization that very little had been written about this feeling from an academic perspective.

I read her book with great pleasure, especially the theoretical introduction which contained sheaves of useful references to look into (Alison Jaggard is top of my list), the chapter on liberal and conservative compassion, and the section on new structures of feeling. I want to use this concept in my research project, in my case to look at very old structures of feeling emerging in the seventeenth century.

Because of my project, I was curious to see how Kathleen Woodward — a professor in English literature — conceived of the role of literature in structures of feeling. Raymond Williams accorded a special status to literature as an archive of feelings: its rhythms, imagery and tone capture forms of feeling and preserve them for the historian to find. To me, this has always seemed a very interesting, but rather passive conception of the work of literature. In the chapter on bureaucratic feelings, Woodward explicitly asks after the role of literature (in this chapter specifically autobiographical memoirs on illness):

What can we say is the cultural work being done by books such as these? I suspect that the real emotional and bodily pain to which these books bear witness draws people, many of whom face similar experiences, into transitory reading communities, imaginary and actual self-help groups that are constituted by the autobiographical act. […] The singular experience of the intensity of an enraged anger is, hopefully, yielding to the productive emotion of outrage. Individuals are coming to understand the structural injustices that are in place. (189 and 190)

Her answer, or hope, is that literature can serve to make readers aware that their anger is not personal, but political: the experience of anger at the bureaucracy and injustice of the American health care system leads to the desire to read about similar experiences, which in turns leads to the realization that a structural wrong is at the root of the emotion.”[T]he challenge,” writes Woodward, “is to understand that feeling – or structure of feeling – in the context of a broader framework of the emotions, by owning that intensity and converting it to something else or finding a way to narrate it differently.” (138)

Woodward also mentions the more traditional view of literature as generating empathy. In the chapter on bureaucratic feeling in health care, she writes that it is her hope that the memoirs she presents to us “will encourage us to be receptive to the suffering of people today with sickness that go unnamed or are largely unfamiliar to us” (192). This may seem a little trite, but it is a point that Woodward returns to in the chapter on the postmodern society of the statistic: a society characterized by a historically-specific discourse of numbers and percentages that generates an anxiety about the future. The final lines of this chapter quote the author of a book on depression, who suggests that a literary description of illness can evoke a feeling of empathy that counters the pervasive impersonal, statistical approach.

In short, though – or perhaps because – I am not entirely sure her analysis of  the role of literature in theses new structures of feeling is exhaustive, I will certainly be returning to Woodward’s ideas in the coming years, because it has sparked all kinds of ideas on changing social structures and the experience of emotion.

The humanities under fire (2)

In my previous post, I wondered whether we should we defend the humanities in terms of their value — even non-economic value, or whether we would then be adjusting ourselves to the neo-liberal view of academia that has become prevalent.

I turned to the ideas of Stefan Collini, historian at Cambridge Universitybecause of a quotation in Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit. That quotation read: “Academics in the humanities must insist, he argues, that their research is ‘a collection of ways of encountering the record of human activity in its greatest richness and diversity,’ and is valuable for this reason” (130). It is important to note that the word “valuable” here is Nussbaum’s and not Collini’s: what interests me in his writing is that he does not argue for value, whether economic, social or otherwise.

In the TLS of November 2009 Collini wrote a piece in response to the new “Research Excellence Framework” then introduced, which measures 25% of “research excellence” in terms of the research’s “impact” outside academia – an impact which is mainly formulated in economic terms in the new framework. Collini worried about the lack of objections against this redefinition of research funding in the humanities. Continue reading

The humanities under fire

I am still recovering from the announcement that the new British government plans to cut practically all funding for the humanities, it is just unbelievable. It does seem to be true, however, as the Minister for Universities confirmed when questioned by members of parliament:

[Mr. Willets] confirmed that, under Lord Browne’s proposals, the teaching grant for band C and D subjects – arts, social sciences and humanities – would be all but wiped out. […] And he suggested there may be some extra protection for strategically sensitive subjects such as modern languages. But he would not guarantee that there would not be closures. He said: “It’s not possible to give a guarantee that all departments will carry on. We are looking for savings that will start in 2012.” (BBC) [By the way, I’m also sorry to see that the tendency to turn subclauses into independent clauses thrives in Britain as in The Netherlands].

On 10 november, there will be a major demonstration by the student unions, supported by leading academics in the humanities. In The Netherlands our universities are inviting British students to join our courses, but as far as I’m aware the cuts have not caused major upheavals in the Dutch humanities. I think they should. The question is — how to react, what action can we take?

In their reactions to this kind of neo-liberal thinking, academics tend to stress that the humanities do have a value for society. In a reaction to earlier cuts, for example, Jonathan Bate was quoted in The Guardian as saying

that the value of the arts was not always measurable in the same way as other research. “If you are an expert in 14th-century Islamic history or the philosophy of Immanuel Kant or the poetry of John Keats, there is not an immediate sense of a patent or business innovation that can follow your research.” Referring to the economic output of British arts graduates, Bate pointed to two of his former students, Rachel Weisz and Sam Mendes, who are now “global leaders” in the world of film.

Although to ring the alarm bells in a national newspaper is of course necessary, Bate’s implicitly supports the economic framework from which our universities are being viewed. By asserting that many of our graduates do end up in sectors that render a profit, such as the creative industries, this kind of response tacitly acknowledges the importance of economic value.

The title of Martha Nussbaum’s new book Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (Princeton 2010) leads one to suspect that the book will not argue for the economic value of the humanities. Continue reading