Pheng Cheah on “Capitalizing the Humanities and Liberal Arts” @ DePauw University on February 23

In the Grundrisse, Marx noted that the enhancement of the physical capacities and the Bildung of the spiritual qualities of humanity, the domination of nature and the creation of a borderless cosmopolitan world are moments in the same process of capital’s liberation of production.  The cultivation of humanity is the task of the academic disciplines we call the humanities and liberal arts.  But we now live in a world where this cultivation is no longer indispensable to the accumulation of capital.  In this conjuncture, reports that defend the humanities and liberal arts are attempts to recapitalize them either by reaffirming their centrality to the accumulation of capital or by inventing new roles for them to play in this process.  The eulogies about the power of the arts and humanities to creatively remake the world are driven by the cold self-interested economic logic of the competitive struggle for students and resources necessary for their survival in the twenty-first century research university.  Indeed, the report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, “The Heart of the Matter,” announces the logic of capital without any irony.  It justifies the humanities and the social sciences as important resources “for a vibrant, competitive and secure nation” in a global economy and recommends the creation of a “National Competitiveness Act”.  In part a response to these documents, this talk explores the relation between the humanities and liberal arts and the development of symbolic, cultural and human capital in a global frame.  What are the advantages and limits of these contemporary capitalizations of the humanities and the liberal arts?  Are alternative arguments in support of them viable today?

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