Humanism Amidst Our Machines   /   Summer 2011   /    Humanism Amidst Our Machines

Reflections on the Crisis in the Humanities

Richard Wolin

From Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysische Anfangsgründe der Naturwissenschaft; British Library via

In the late 1990s, George Steiner published a thought-provoking study on “The Humanities—At Twilight?” At points, his tone was veritably Spenglerian. Steiner’s narrative, as prefigured by the title, surveys a cultural landscape suffused with loss, decline, and stagnation. “There has also been a ‘down-marketing,’ a vulgarization of culture on an unprecedented and now ever-accelerating scale,” Steiner laments. Heretofore, the humanities were predicated on a quasi-theological linkage between signifier and signified, word and meaning. Today, Steiner argues, that nexus has been permanently severed. We now subsist in an aleatory discursive universe in which “dissemination”—a random proliferation of signification—has triumphed at the expense of “real presences”: transcendent instances of value and meaning, impervious to both the ravages of time and the seductive blandishments of fashion. As a method of interpretation, deconstruction, Steiner continues, “demonstrates the…endlessly mobile, self-ironizing texture of propositions; it points to the abyss of nonmeaning across which metaphor and symbol…would span their bridges.” In conclusion, we are instructed in the values of remembrance in anticipation of an enigmatic “homecoming” and informed that it is the humanities’ mission “to instruct us that there can be, even in the unknown, there perhaps above all, a homecoming.11xGeorge Steiner, “The Humanities—At Twilight?” PN Review 25 (1999): 23–4.

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