In my previous post, I claimed that “the humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.” Clearly people have been engaging in activities of this type in a variety of settings for as far back as we have written records. Yet I want to suggest that there is a common root or model for most if not all of the humanities disciplines as academic discourses, a kind of Ur-discipline: namely, modern biblical scholarship as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
(Now before anyone freaks out, I don’t mean to say that humanities disciplines are “secretly religious” in any simplistic way — I’m referring to modern biblical scholarship specifically as a secular discipline. Nor do I mean to say anything about contemporary biblical scholarship, which has changed a lot since the period I’m highlighting.)
The primary goal of modern biblical scholarship during its classical period was to undermine and disqualify traditional theological claims based on Scripture as corruptions of their true historical meaning. Yet this was not primarily a Protestant-style call to return to the pure message of Scripture as opposed to traditional corruptions. Rather, the effect was to render Scripture increasingly irrelevant to any contemporary religious or political project. At its most rigorous, biblical scholarship even disqualified the mobilization of Scripture on behalf of the secular liberal project, as when Johannes Weiss demonstrated that Jesus’s apocalyptic preaching on the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with contemporary visions of gradual progress.
The result was a kind of de-activation of a Scripture that had become the property of a strange kind of negative magisterium that, if it remained true to the immanent logic of its practice, would disallow any and all contemporary usage of the Bible. The Bible becomes an object of pure study, and a new, imposing tradition of interpretation displaces the old. The political and religious authorities — not to mention the actual people! — always necessarily misunderstand and misconstrue the Bible, and so the biblical scholar must reject their claim to have any access to the Bible’s meaning.
Hence the Bible is enshrined as worthy of endless attention, precisely as irrelevant to contemporary political and theological disputes. We can see the same types of dynamics in other major humanistic disciplines. In literary studies, the privileged object was the modernist text, misunderstood and reviled by the traditional literary establishment and the public at large, and yet supportive of endless commentary. In philosophy, the ancestors of both the analytic and continental traditions argued that the very task of philosophy had been completely misunderstood and that only a self-selected elite could engage in the new and much more esoteric project that they imagined.
Whatever the object of study, it is endlessly productive, but only in the academic context — everywhere else, the object brings forth nothing but abortions.
Now just as biblical studies has changed since then, so have all the humanistic disciplines. Yet it seems naive to me to say that either biblical studies or the humanities at large have put these tendencies completely behind them. Fan cultures, for instance, are not completely wrong to be suspicious when an academic comes sniffing around, because that academic may very well wind up claiming that the fans have it all wrong and that the cultural artifact has a true meaning that is accessible only to the academic gaze. And we can see why humanities departments have served so poorly as a material site for radical politics — the signature move of removing texts from their institutional and populist advocates and enshrining them as an object of commentary is an ever-present danger.
I don’t imagine that we can remove this quasi-theological heritage of biblical studies from the humanistic disciplines, any more than biblical studies was able to remove its own “properly” theological heritage (it is definitely, if weirdly, Protestant in orientation, for instance). This basic structure, not despite but because of the features that we might find undesirable (elitism, political quietism), has produced much that is of value, much that we would not want to do without. Purging the religious impurity, as so many contemporary thinkers seem to want to do, is the perfect example of how denying one’s religious inheritance allows it to run wild — after all, isn’t the quest for purification a classically religious one? We need to learn to live with the religious impurity, and that means learning to use it differently.