Why we need humanities? To speculate!

It is almost obvious that the scientific research, in Italy as well as in other European countries, is not experiencing its best moment. It is sad to affirm that the research in the humanities is limping as a dying being, but also fairly true. Many could justify this near-death condition making reference to the financial crisis, but this reveals itself to be nothing more than an excuse, if we go compare the funds—and thus the chances to support the research in a specific field—available to scientific and humanistic research. In a lecture at Harvard concerning the future of the research in the humanities, philosopher Homi K. Bhabha framed the problem in the simplest way possible: it appears that in 2011, in the USA, the research in the humanities received less than half of the 1% of the total sum allocated to scientific and technological research.

The current financial crisis doesn’t seem to constitute a problem for that kind of research able to produce results that can be immediately traded on the global market, whereas any attempt to deepen the insight concerning literary, philosophical, sociological, political or artistic issues seems destined to fail and be swallowed up by that endless black well know as—apparent—uselessness. Any university student or researcher operating in the humanities can recall the experience of finding himself in the situation where, presenting his research activity, the interlocutor stopped him asking: “Very well, but what is all this for?”—just as he was at the counter of a patent office hoping to get a new invention accepted.

This—simplified—situation seems to be the cultural frame within which the research in the humanities is today inscribed and assessed. The financial crisis comes after.

In a recent article appeared on The New Republic, Judith Shulevitz tries to give a clarifying answer in regard to the Sword of Damocles constituted by the question “Very well, but what is all this for?”. Shulevitz starts repeating some traditional answers: the studies in the humanities are essential to the comprehension, preservation and transmission of those nearly four thousand years of culture produced by mankind. Or: the studies in the humanities are necessary to educate the future generations to develop a political conscience, becoming thus good citizens and avoiding the errors of totalitarianisms. Then there is the answer mentioning the scientific and technological advancement, according to which the humanities function as the moral guardian of the knowledge developed by mankind. According to the author all these are simple and valid answers, but seems that none of them succeeds in breaking through the utilitarian wall raised by those bureaucrats and petty politicians responsible for the management of public funds.

It is at this point that Shulevitz proposes an answer that sounds like a provocation but which, to a closer look, holds more truth than we are willing to admit: “I’d like to offer my own only half-unserious case for the liberal arts. I propose that they should survive, and thrive, because they give us science fiction, and science fiction creates jobs and makes us rich.”

These inventions, these new technologies are indebted to the fantastic speculation operating in science fiction texts? Many, a great deal of them. From the helicopter to mobile phones, from submarines to cyberspace—an expression created by Gibson in Neuromancer—from Second Life to the new methods of election prediction—inspired by Asimov’s psychohistory. The list could go on for a long time. The critical point seems to be fiction’s nature itself—that is the speculative act’s capacity to create completely innovative worlds harbouring new possibilities. But, to a closer look, this nature alone is not enough: the most important science fiction works—those that didn’t simply entertain a large number of readers, but modified the collective imaginary introducing new perspectives and points of view—are not the works that succeeded more than others in inventing, but instead those that, within the fiction, managed to replicate a system of rules and constant parameters, by virtue of which the new world acquires a more realistic feeling. “And all science fiction, if it’s any good, has to be plausible, if not in the sense that it might be true, then in the sense that it must feel true. Whether that happens has a lot to do with whether the writer can bring the characters to life, of course, but in science fiction, more perhaps than in other literary genres, suspension of disbelief depends on the quality of the author’s “world-building,” as sci-fi aficionados call it.” As already said, Shulevitz’s answer is first of all a provocation. But it becomes so in the moment in which, to please the liberal market’s need for capital and profit—within which scientific research moves itself today—it links science fiction to the creation of employment and wealth. The true value of science fiction literature—being it literature in the traditional sense or movies, tv-series, comics, etc.—is not to be found in the anticipation of new technological inventions, but rather in the prediction of the world in which those inventions are introduced and employed. In this way speculation serves as a simulation of the way in which a given technology is acknowledged at the social and political level—and hence of how much it modifies the relations between people, and between these and the environment they inhabit.

Science fiction—and all the non-scientific or social-scientific branches of knowledge that go into its composition—gives us the stories we need to understand a world increasingly dominated by technical processes too hermetic and complex for most people to question.”