Yo-Yo Ma makes us late for dinner

“Aaaaaggghhhhh”, said P-, “how I hate those humanities people ! I am so glad I did Physics !” What prompted this outburst was emerging from a three hour performance in a Harvard church, ravenously hungry and bad tempered. It was called “Witness” and billed as the contribution of the Harvard Humanities to this year’s celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It sounded like it would be good – it featured Yo-Yo Ma, Toni Morrison, and the dancer Damian Woetzel. The trouble is it also featured a long sequence of Harvard Professors pontificating. For every three minutes of bliss with Yo-Yo you had to sit through seven minutes of somebody reading an essay in Hungarian, or blethering on about the “exigent materialities of our aspirational constructions”. Depressingly, even Toni Morrison was deathly dull. She read from her own work in a monotone, and added a twenty minute uninteresting reminiscence about the transcendent experience of watching slam poets perform in the Louvre. Morrison is a Saint of course, so even though she spoke at about eight words a minute, one felt obliged to appear captivated.

It struck me that as scientists in Universities, we are both the academics and the practitioners, whereas in the humanities this is two different things. There are those that create and those that interpret. The interpreters are very clever and reside in ancient and prestigious institutions like Harvard. They feel important, and act like they are needed to validate what creative artists do. The truth is different. Creation is crucial to our wellbeing; those best at it are almost magical beings, and are justifiably adored. Humanities Professors are needed to teach our children, thank you very much, but otherwise add nothing of value. They think they are a priesthood, but really they are just spongers, making a living out of somebody else’s talent. As they are genuinely clever but have nothing interesting to say, hot air expands to fill the vacuum.

Provocative enough ?

14 Responses to Yo-Yo Ma makes us late for dinner

  1. Conor says:

    Having read this I’m wishing you’d been there for the Higgs portrait unveiling ceremony on Monday at the shiny new Informatics Forum: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/mar/02/god-particle-peter-higgs-portrait-lhc

    There was about a 40-30-30 split of Physicists-Press-Humanities and two lectures were given: One on the works of Ken Currie and their interpretation by a St. Andrews ‘Expert on the works of Ken Currie’ (Specialize much?) and another by John Ellis on what it’s all about.

    I’m not touching this with a fifty-foot pole. Being born of two humanities academics and going into a PhD in Particle Physics is somewhat self-incriminating as is.

  2. There are probably more than a few humanities professors who get up to quite a lot of doing along with their interpreting. A nice example is the delightful and highly participative (can I say that?) media theory guy David Gauntlett (here’s his stuff on youtube).

  3. Martin E. says:

    For you convenience here is a link to a
    Witness article in the Harvard Gazette.
    The dance guy was lots of fun, by the way.

  4. Martin E. says:

    For a real defense of humanities and their value for freedoms see Reading Lolita in Teheran by Azar Nafisi. The Iranian religious police think any book with a bad character in it is ipso facto a bad book. That tends to cut down on any plot tension, but also stops people thinking.
    So there is value in what humanities profs do, but they are probably more in danger of becoming windbags than even astronomers as, I’ve found, no-one seems to mind telling an old astronomer that he’s full of it. And a good thing too. (But be gentle with me, please.)

  5. John Peacock says:

    Your argument would be fine if all scientists could be classified as creative, but that’s probably pushing it. There are a few who deserve this label, and who open up new observational or analytical techniques. The rest of the herd are then very good at adopting the breakthrough and elaborating it – but this isn’t so different from a humanities academic dissecting a poet’s meaning. But I suppose it’s not all or nothing: everyone spends some fraction of their time in “normal science’ mode, even the greats.

  6. andyxl says:

    John – I didn’t mean to suggest that all scientists are artists. I think a better analogy is that we are craftsmen – you are quite right that what most of us do most of the time is workaday stuff. But whatever it is we do, and however big the range of quality and depth, we are all doing the same thing; whereas in the humanities there really are two distinct activities – doing and analysing. I was hoping for a spirited defense of how important the analysing is …

  7. telescoper says:

    To put it a different way, the arts (music, literature, and the rest) all have their professional critics – usually unsuccessful artists with chips on their shoulders – but we don’t have them in science, despite the plentiful supply of scientists with chips on their shoulders.

  8. Pippa Goldschmidt says:

    Andy – what about the bods who analyse scientific processes; the sociologists and philosophers of science? They’re your critics. But they’re usually tucked well away from actual scientists, which is probably just as well. At least for scientists who are probably too busy to worry about whether or not they’re just conforming with the latest paradigm.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    We had an anthropologist visit us a few months back, who gave a fascinating talk on what astronomers are like to study as a group. I wouldn’t describe him as a critic, though.

    I think maybe we are looking at this from the wrong end. Artists create something beautiful and complex without trying to explain what it means or justify it, while critics try to come up with descriptions and rationalizations and connections and explanations. We are critics, not artists.

  10. andyxl says:

    aha ! so Nature Herself is the Artist, and we are just vainly trying to explain her ??? (Note pronoun-genderism permissible here, when being self-consciously archaic.)

  11. Conor says:

    MM: Did the phrase ‘sackful of agitated ferrets’ appear in the anthropologists’ talk?

    I suspect a lot has to do with how open to interpretation the subject is. Arts = heavily interpretable. Science = one interpretation that is objectively correct, many that aren’t. Science doesn’t leave much room for people to make a living from critique.

  12. Michael Merrifield says:

    Actually, I think the anthropologist may be getting a rather strange view of how astronomers work, having embedded himself in that rarest of collaborations: one that collaborates.

    I have to disagree with your definition that “Science = one interpretation that is objectively correct” as a way out of deprecating scientists as mere critics, though. There are often alternative theories that fit all the available facts and even predict the results of future experiments just as accurately. Every time we apply Occam’s Razor to choose between them, we are making an aesthetic judgement, and only much later (if at all) do we find out whether we made the better choice from where the theory ultimately leads. The remarkable part is that the critics’ initial taste seems to match the Artist’s intent so often.

  13. Stephen Serjeant says:

    I understand and agree with John’s point, but I’d add that the arts seem to me to be no less prone to adapting and elaborating. A plaster cast of the inside of a water bottle was, to me, interesting and imaginative; but once you hear of the plaster cast of the inside of a house, you wonder if it’s an idea which has been done, and done to death at that.

    I’d contend that the sciences are no less creative disciplines than the arts (based on working in one and having a nodding acquaintance in the other); it’s just that you have much less freedom to choose your idiom in the sciences.

  14. andyxl says:

    Before I left CfA, M- remembered that back in the seventies there was a fad for mixing the pretentious and the popular in a hoomeruss manner, and he dug out a postcard I once gave him. Enjoy.

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