Thursday, July 12, 2012

Strong Interpretation: Citton’s L’Avenir des Humanités

It is perhaps a matter of common knowledge that the humanities, philosophy, literature, classics, art history, as well as history and the “soft” social sciences, are under attack. This attack is generally framed in terms of the general logic of austerity, which views the idea of any education that is not directly and immediately job preparation, as something which we as a society could afford once but can afford no more. The humanities are seen as luxuries of more opulent times, a claim that may surprise anyone who has actually worked in the humanities. Against this brutal logic of austerity, which also views retirement benefits and dental plans as “luxuries,” there have attempts to defend the humanities. These defenses generally take two forms: some accept the premise that argues that higher education is job preparation, arguing for the marketable nature of the core skills of the humanities, such as critical reading, writing, and thinking; while a second set of arguments rejects the premise of marketability, arguing instead that higher education has lofty goals than just preparing workers. Critical reading and writing train political subjects, the citizens rather than employees of tomorrow.

Yves Citton’s L’Avenirdes humanités: Économie de la connaissance ou cultures de l’interpretation is part of this class of books. What is interesting, although not necessarily unique, about Citton’s approach is that he situates both the crisis of the humanities and his argument for their continuing relevance against the backdrop of what has been called “cognitive capitalism.” This leads him to raise the question as to what exactly counts as knowledge in the knowledge economy. When people celebrate the free availability and productivity of knowledge, what sort of knowledge are they talking about? It is in answering this question that Citton not only defends the humanities, but distances his analysis from simple celebrations of the possibilities of cognitive capitalism.

Roughly speaking Citton recognizes three different conceptions of knowledge. The first is that of knowledge [connaissance], which is quantifiable and exchangeable, circulating freely in the knowledge economy. This is opposed to a second kind of knowledge, equally fetishized, that of invention, a kind of transcendent capacity to create.  In this division between these two ideas of knowledge we can already see a picture of the contemporary knowledge economy: it is an economy divided between data entry and innovation, between those who“like” things on facebook and the “genius” of Mark Zuckerberg. Against both of these conceptions of knowledge Citton develops a theory of interpretation. Interpretation is not information, it is always singular act of creation, but nor is it invention, at least in its mystified transcendental sense of the term, since every interpretation is an interpretation of some common text or referent. Against the anonymity of knowledge and the ineffable individuality of invention there is the transindividuality of interpretation, simultaneously singular and common.

Citton develops his theory of interpretation through Deleuze, and Deleuze’s engagement with two sources, Henri Bergson and Spinoza. Bergson’s philosophy of memory moves from a level of immediate knowledge, determined by sensory-motor relations in which the thing is only grasped in its immediate utility, to an inventive interpretation. This interpretation is liberated from the immediacy of practical needs to see things differently. Memory introduces an interval in action, and this interval is the space of interpretation. This idea of an interval seems inconsistent with Spinoza’s thought. For Spinoza the order and connection of thoughts is subject to the same causality as bodies. However, as Sévérac and Bové have argued, the transition from the first order of knowledge, determined by the causal encounter of bodies, to common notions, determined by the minds capacity to think, involves the increase of the number of things that one reflects upon. The more we act and think, the more we are capable of acting and thinking. For both Spinoza and Bergson interpretation is not a pure act of invention, something that is formed ex nihilo, but is formed through the plurality of memories and encounters, it is singular plural.

In reconciling Deleuze’s Bergsonism and Spinozism, Citton wrestles with the vitalism underlying this connection relation. For Bergson the hierarchy of knowledge is framed in relation to life: the constraints of life force us to merely recognize, while memory makes invention possible. Memory itself is a vital power, the life of the mind against merely living. A similar idea could be seen in Spinoza in the progression from the exposure to the naturally given connections of things to the internal causality of thought. It is a striving which breaks with the passive reaction to the given. Citton argues that the constraints that limit the capacity to create and invent are not vital, not the immediacy of life, but the mediations of contemporary capitalist society. 

Citton’s attempt to square the circle of Bergson and Spinoza in Deleuze is interesting, but it is not his focus. His real focus is to begin to elucidate the relation between commonality and singularity, determination and invention that defines the act of interpretation. Every interpretation is situated at the intersection of the individual and collective, as well as the past and future. The question remains what does interpretation have to do with contemporary condition of knowledge?

One way to answer this is to argue that knowledge effaces interpretation, while invention exploits it. With respect to the first, the purely quantitative idea of the amount of knowledge overlooks the fact that information is meaningless without interpretation. Interpretation does not just make sense, it also makes relevant. The focus on information overlooks the need for developing the practices and communities of interpretation, a need which increases with the quantitative increase of the available information. On the other hand, invention, the kind of invention that is seen as a radical breakthrough is only possible on the basis of a network of interpretations and inventions. Effacing these interpretations, or communities of interpretations, obscures the collective in the name of the genius. Citton illustrates this with the figure of the iceberg, what we see is only the tip, the breakthroughs, which are dependent upon a submerged world of practices and inventions.

These two figures of thought, knowledge and genius, obscure the inventive interpretations that are already taking place not only conceptually but also in practice. On the one hand, we have the sheer excess of information, which makes it very difficult to generate the time, the distance from the immediate that interpretation requires. On the other hand we have the idea of invention, the empty slogan to “be creative” or “think differently” which obscures the real labor of interpretation that is the backdrop of any inventive interpretation.

We are thus confronted with new barriers to inventive interpretation. It is no longer a matter of access of external constraints that restricted the skills and materials of knowledge to a select few, but of constraints that are internalized as we become subject to the flows of information. It is the subjective destruction of attention and the not the objective ban or restriction that generally limits interpretation today.  To the extent that external constraints remain in place they are much less visible than out and out censorship. Citton has some very interesting passages on the question of filters. Filters, leaving somethings out and including others, are a necessary condition of attention, of a break from the overwhelming immediacy of knowledge. Unaddressed and unexamined, however, they can become one of the central mediations limiting knowledge.

However, I am left thinking of the class, and even global divide, between the two figures of thought that are the object of Citton’s critique, what could be considered proletarianized knowledge and the aristocracy of invention. The two different kinds of thought correspond to a divide between the cognariat (or even the free labor of the web searcher) and the entrepreneur. Thus, Citton’s third figure, that of inventive interpretation which passes between the collective and the individual, the painstaking labor of rereading and rereading and the moments of insight, can only be thought as a disruption to the existing knowledge economy.

Thus, concluding briefly, all too briefly, Citton’s book, which offers a great deal to think about, and thus to interpret, regarding the idea of a knowledge economy, or cognitive capitalism, leads me the following conclusion regarding its central topic, the humanities. Stated bluntly this conclusion is as follows. There is no defense of the humanities that is not also a challenge to the existing economy of knowledge. This is bad news to those who would simply like to make philosophy marketable or apply for grants for the teaching of citizenship, but good news for those of us who already saw the practice of critique and the critique of society as interconnected in the first place. 

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