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The Humanities Conference 2003

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“Humanism, the Humanities, and the Human: ‘Welcome to the New World Order’”

David S. Gross.

I begin by using Sartre and Althusser as the basis of a critique of “liberal humanism” and “the humanities.” I then expand the discussion by means of Raymond Williams’ categories, to argue that elements designated by “the humanities” are “normally” within the dominant, sometimes appear as residual alternative, but can also, rarely but significantly, function as emergent and oppositional. I continue with the discussion of the problems and dangers of intellectual practice in the humanities, using Benjamin on complicity, and Foucault on institutions like universities and humanities conferences.

I then discuss the intellectual, academic alternatives to our practice in the humanities. Borrowing a phrase from the conference organizers, I show how the “dominant rationalisms” of the sciences are not without dangers. I use Adorno and Horkheimer to outline a critique of “scientistic” thought since the Enlightenment. I extend this using Habermas and the less well-known analysis of Harry Braverman, to show how Lenin’s fascination with “Fordism” and even Taylor’s “scientific management” shows what can happen when progressive goals are attempted through narrowly “scientific” practice.

I conclude with an argument for a uniquely valuable role for certain practices and (even) traditions which lie with the humanities. I again use Benjamin, his call for “profane illumination,” but more importantly a line in the British romantic tradition from Blake through Morris. Finally I turn to Bruce Springsteen, from whose song, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” I borrowed my subtitle, and John Steinbeck to argue that there exists a kind of humanism within the humanities which stands in oppositional relation to the state and corporate practices which in this new century we call “globalism.” Blake and Morris, Springsteen and Steinbeck suggest a conception of the human which has the potential to allow us as humanities professionals to contribute to the collective project of human emancipation.


David S. Gross  (United States)
Associate Professor
English Department
University of Oklahoma

Dr. David Gross received his PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa. He has for many years been a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma. He has published widely in books and scholarly journals on topics in American, British and European literature, and in literary and cultural theory.

  • Liberal humanism-critique
  • Enlightenment—critique
  • Scientific rationalism-critique
  • Oppositional Romanticism—defense

(Virtual Presentation, English)