I Really Don’t Think “Humanities” Means What You Think It Means…

I was, as you know, quite impressed by the actual lectures in the Humanities given during this program–so much so, as a matter of fact, that I opted to join the Space Humanities department during my two weeks of independent study. So far, I must admit, I’ve been terribly disappointed.

The first genuine day of Departmental Activities was on Wednesday; it was given-over to an industry representative who told us to design a technological concept for an asteroid mine. Now, if you are like me, you are probably wondering what the hell this has to do with Humanities. Indeed, I asked this very question, and was informed that because it was Humanities because it was “a creative activity.” In fact, as I later learned, it was the exact same “creative activity” that the Engineering Department had been tasked to perform the day before: we had literally just been given a recycled Engineering assignment. Because Humanities is basically just non-technical Engineering, am I right?

Oh, but it gets even better! Because you see, the reason we were given this task was because of a contract the University had signed with some private-sector start-up whose business model was based upon harvesting resources from asteroids, and then selectively releasing them to the public as a means of keeping supply artificially low; indeed, all work we did on the project was their intellectual property. And as part of our briefing, we were treated to a lengthy advertisement for this company, extolling the virtues of unconstrained growth of the consumer economy. Our Industry Representative enthused about how harvesting resources from the moon would make someone into the world’s first trillionaire, and talked about how much money there was to be made by private industries in transmitting solar energy back to Earth. At no point was there any discussion about whether any of these things were desirable; whether artificial scarcity was ethically defensible, whether privatizing the collective inheritance of Humanity is a moral thing to do*, or whether maintaining an economy based upon crass consumerism into the indefinite future is actually something worth doing. But of course, as we all know, the proper role of the Humanities is to unquestioningly serve as the handmaiden of the dominant politico-economic ideology!

The whole experience was profoundly dispiriting; I came away with the impression that I’d fallen into the world of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It’s one of the few things that I haven’t enjoyed about this place. You see, the stated ideology of this institution is an almost Utopian Star Trek-style vision of peace and international cooperation through science and exploration; and yet there is a fundamental disconnect (which seems to go largely unexamined and uncommented upon**), with the industry element who seem to care only for carving up the final frontier for their own personal wealth, and exporting the same shitty neo-liberal ideology that has so recently destroyed the Earth’s economy into space. But if we can’t have this conversation in the academic Humanities of all places, then where the flying fuck can we have it?

If anything though, this experience has redoubled my personal inclination to study the Humanities, because I’m becoming increasingly convinced that more Humanities is what the world chiefly needs right now—whether it realizes it or not.

______________________________________

*Surely to God if it would actually be possible to provide civilization with unlimited free energy from space-based solar sources, we at least be having a conversation about who ought to own it, rather than just hearing vapid speeches about how whoever figures-out a way to commercialize it will “become the next Exxon.”

**Except, of course,by the curmudgeonly Hawaiian lecturer of whom I was so fond.

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About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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2 Responses to I Really Don’t Think “Humanities” Means What You Think It Means…

  1. Lindsay says:

    What?! No, that’s not what the humanities do at all!

    (What I would imagine a “Space Humanities” curriculum would consist of would be a lot of science-fiction reading, plus a lot of ethics and philosophy. History and political science, too: international relations is important, since space is today somewhat like the open seas were in the 1800s: a place where anyone who can go there does go there, and does pretty much whatever they want. I also think a history of colonization would be essential. You would discuss things that were actually happening, or being planned, in light of whatever you had just read. I actually had a class somewhat like this in high school; it was called World Futuristics, and it was really cool.)

    I’d be so upset if I had been in that room. MaddAddam is an apt reference; it does sound a lot like the corporate-owned dome cities in Oryx and Crake!

    I also think your last question — about critical examination of new technologies and space exploration, and the moral and political implications of those things, and how those discussions ought to be happening in universities but aren’t — has an answer, and that answer has to do with universities becoming more dependent on corporate funding as government funding dries up. Increasingly, government, too, is becoming the handmaiden of industry, and whatever functions it quits performing it cedes to industry, which often does a shoddier job for a greater price.

    • “I also think your last question — about critical examination of new technologies and space exploration, and the moral and political implications of those things, and how those discussions ought to be happening in universities but aren’t — has an answer, and that answer has to do with universities becoming more dependent on corporate funding as government funding dries up.”

      That was my impression as well.

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