Stover: No Case for Humanities

“And yet, for now at least, the humanities are permitted to retain a much diminished place. They tell us the reason is that the humanities can prove useful in building skills or achieving justice, but they know and we know that, as a tool, the humanities are not fit for these purposes. At the same time, however, no one can admit that the old social function of the humanities—its creation of class distinction—lives on, if only for the shallow status demarcation of today’s elite. The most prestigious universities in the West are still those defined by their humanities legacy, which surrounds them with an aura of cultural standing that their professional purpose no longer justifies. The humanities continue to lend cachet to educational credentials, granting an elite status worth far more than any “marketable skills.” That is why every technical institute with higher aspirations has added humanities programs: accounting or law or engineering can be learned in many places, but courtoisie is passed along only in the university, and only through the humanities—and everyone knows it.

Meanwhile, the humanities provide cover for the economic engine that the contemporary university has become. A Regius Professor would prefer not to think of himself as an accreditor of the next generation of corporate consultants, hedge fund managers, and big tech CEOs—even though that is the most socially “relevant” and visible effect of his work today. It is the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity. This “case” for the humanities is implicit in every glossy flier produced by a university development office, but no one could state it without blushing.”


There Is No Case for the Humanities

By Stover, Justin .American Affairs Volume I, Number 4 (Winter 2017): 210–24.



Hipsters as the Foot Soldiers of Capitalism?

Stephen Pritchard writes, in a recent article to the Guardian…

“It is the establishment that now sees the hipster as the embodiment of autonomous, small-scale capitalist expansionism. But it is not just the hipster cast in this role. Artists are the neoliberal state’s troops. Artists make the first move into post-industrial, post-welfare state wastelands like brownfield sites and council housing estates and sow the seeds of cultural capital. They attract hipsters before, eventually, being displaced by them and their new middle-class neighbours. Both the artists and (some) of the hipsters – the ones who haven’t “settled” yet – will move on, exploring, breaking away (again), developing new potential sites for capital “investment”. And so the cycle of gentrification starts over again.”

But is there something more to a work?

Surely today’s aesthetic and cultural industry looks to the faculty of taste to identify intimacies and differentiate nuances to develop new products and markets. It draws on the productivity of consumers participating in the sociality of taste to valorize these products and markets, and it deploys the meaningfulness found in taste’s pleasures and intimacies to combat the alienating effect excessive economic rationalization has had on social life.

Taste, and it is manifested by its foot soldiers, the contemporary so-called ‘hipsters’, however, provokes a set of crises all its own, crises that ignite the incongruence between aesthetic relationality and the social relations of capital. In doing so, ‘hipsters’ come to reveal the fundamentally incapacity of taste to serve quietly in the role in which it has been enlisted by the aesthetic economy.

The tensions ‘hipsters’ instigate play out in the friction between taste and aesthetic purchase, and, as such, provide a real material challenge to the promise of the aesthetic economy. They play out when one senses that one has been fooled or ripped off by an inauthentic experience, when one’s community is revealed to be a market niche, set in motion as a means of social control, and when the struggle for a better, more beautiful
life ends in despair and isolation.

Taste identifies pleasures, but it also records pain.This friction it records is recognized by Pierre Bourdieu as a sense of symbolic violence. Taste drives the acquisition cultural capital, but only because it is, at first, a critical faculty, one that, despite the burdens it is asked to carry by capitalism and state planners, is still capable of sensing and bringing to light the concrete conditions at the source of general alienation.

The crises that emanate from the judgment of taste unfold from two related contradictions at the center of what makes taste so useful for the aesthetic economy. The first is taste’s insatiable search for the new and different, which rubs against its pursuit of likeness and identity. The second derives from taste’s aim to produce objective, universally valid truths, through a subjective and free register. These contradictions drive taste and make it an agent of social change. The dynamism of these contradictions positioned the aesthetic at the heart of  Enlightenment philosophy, and today, as the engine of the aesthetic economy. This dynamism also placed taste at the center of critical theory, making it the troubled subject in the work of Theodore Adorno, and in the sociology of Bourdieu.

The edifice of the aesthetic economy, as Stephen Pritchard writes above, was built as a strategy capable of redeeming a political economy in crisis. But such an edifice is on shaky ground, it will inevitably buckle under pressure to contain the vitality of taste the ‘hipsters’ are driven to provoke, forcing the cycle of gentrification to begin again.

The question for the next hipsters’ will be: how might the next cycle of development position taste, as a tool in the production of restricted Value, or as a means to discern the beautiful?


Ben Davis on Connoisseurship and Critique

“It can be argued, based on this, that the particular, near-religious charge of this strain of art connoisseurship is owed to the fact that it seems to offer access to all those qualities lost in the transition to alienated consumption: a sense of the specific conditions of production, the aura of the humanity behind the object.”

“A rapacious contemporary capitalism relentlessly seeks to carve out spaces of nouveau-snobbery and privilege, while also despoiling and profaning old spaces of solace—sometimes simultaneously.”

“The condemnation of arrogant elitism or dumbed-down consumerism, of the detached art object or the degraded commodity form, has value. But, being partial, such critiques are always liable to overshoot their mark, and become their opposite. In the end, you have to keep your sights on transforming the system that produced such contradictions in the first place.”

See: Connoisseurship and Critique

in e-flux

CFP: Feeling and Faking: Evidence, Accident, and the Production of Expertise in Self-Help

Call for Abstracts (AAA 2016 Annual Meeting)

Feeling and Faking: Evidence, Accident, and the Production of Expertise in Self-Help

Amidst the dematerialization of value and austerity politics of late capitalism, the booming and largely unregulated industry of self-help marks a new category of professional expertise and intimate labor. From New-Age healers through life and executive coaches to positive psychologists and more, the genesis of this new professional class galvanizes public debates about the meanings of accredited knowledge, expert authority, and the ethics and practices of professionalization. As self-help becomes commodified, it generates a range of intimacies between practitioners and clients that retrace the contours of politics, community, and apportionment of access to the good life.

Public critique of self-help professionals renders some self-help agents as charlatans at best. For their part, scholars have criticized this industry for contributing to the dismantling of social solidarity while reproducing race, gender and class hierarchies (Illouz 2008; McGee 2007). This panel aims to shed new light on how self-help practitioners engage with the critiques they face by pragmatic forms of engagement with knowledge in the cultivations of their own professional authority. We follow the writings of Dumit (2001) and Bourdieu (1990) on New-Agers as seekers and bricoleurs who craft, borrow, and play with knowledge in a way that challenges the monopoly of legitimate knowledge in the form of scientific, religious, and university-based disciplines. Producing knowledge that links desires for spiritual redemption to the labor of optimizing health, happiness, and ‘peak performance’ across a range of personal, professional, and intimate settings, this panel explores the manners in which self-help professionals may negotiate with existing power structures by crafting new epistemologies of evidence, accident, order, and marginalia on their path to resist marginalization.

This panel invites ethnographic explorations of concepts of authority, professionalism, and expert knowledge in the realm of self-help. We invite ethnographies which examine the transmission of knowledge, including training, mentoring, self-branding, pedagogical practices, institutional work, and media strategies of self-help practitioners in their efforts to cultivate professional identity in a range of Western and non-Western contexts. Please send an abstract of 250 words to or by April 8th.


Requiem for Tuscanization (1970-2008)


Tuscanization aimed to save modernism by returning it to its renaissance roots:
To return capitalism to its birthplace,
To reset debt to the origins of credit
To Europe’s cradle of global trade
To its human-sized cities and ecological balance

Against the excesses of McDonaldization, it aimed to replace:
Efficiency with Deliberation
Control with Freedom
Predictability with Originality
Calculability with Serendipity

It sought a Place:
Where family tables stretch across generations
Where living reaches the highest art
Where artisanship can flourish
In gated fountain commons
Where Real Estate is to the manor born-again

In reaction to the organization of labor
To the alienation of mass consumption
To the falling rate of profit
To the global speed up of work

The Factory became a rustic Studio
Industry was reconceived as Craft
Rationalism was overcome by Nature
And Race was restored to Ethnicity

Mediterranean sensibilities aimed to moderate:
Urbanity and Rural Boorishness
Sophistication and Innocence
The Cosmopolitan and the Provincial
Tempering Ingenuity with Heritage

Lowe, the Hearth and Home Depot
It came to stage the Peasant Sovereign
To work with one’s hands
To resurface flatness with texture
And the abject economies of scale

Yet the overlay of Tuscan simplicity gave way
Under a glut of gardening and patina
To a conception of Value diminished
and crashed beneath a finance baroque

Now on the outskirts of mass incarceration
In the ruins of Tuscan Villas
Occupied against the banks
A deeper disenchantment feasts
This fetish too, has turned an instrument of social control

Leaving only the memories of a taste renewed
Burdened and rejected in the mouth
To bind a fragile self
Like fragments of granite
which once held together the idea of home



-David Michalski

Wealth, Value, and a Sense of their Difference

John Holloway reminds us in his new article that history has differentiated Wealth and Value, and that that difference is what sets in motion _Capital_

“Once we read that account of wealth in the Grundrisse,the first sentence of
Capital takes on much more vivid colours. Wealth is ‘the universality of human
needs, capacities, pleasures, productive forces etc., created through universal
exchange’. It is collective, it is social, the product of human interaction – the
richness of what is often referred to as ‘the common’. It is in movement: ‘the
absolute working-out of [humanity’s] creative potentialities’, ‘the absolute
movement of becoming’. It is diverse: ‘the development of all human powers
as [an] end in itself’. Richness, the richness of a street filled with different
traditions and ways of living, the richness of the turn of the seasons in the
countryside, the richness of a voice raised in song, be it human or of a bird.
The potentially unlimited richness of richnesses: that is what appears in our
society as an immense collection of commodities.

“Read Capital: The First Sentence Or, Capital Starts with Wealth, not with the Commodity”
Historical Materialism 23:1, 2015

When we understand wealth as the richness of life, it is easier to see how the senses- and one’s sense of judgment have been yoked into service in the aesthetic economy.The human senses are cultivated across history, if they were once developed to correspond to Wealth, they are today cultivated to correspond to Value.

In the _Dialectic of Taste_, I outline how this shift occurs in relation to the fall of mass production and consumption from 1970-present, the mode of production or consumption I call the aesthetic economy.

I also forecast the demise of this unsustainable arrangement, a demise Holloway contends Marx sought to coax in the opening line of _Capital_

“This first sentence [of Capital] is no innocuous curtain-raiser. Marx is opening up a world of tension. He invites our indignation, our sense of dignity damaged.”

For the dialectic of taste to maintain its immanent movement, the sense of taste must be sensitive enough to sense this sense of indignation.

From an Ethnography of Wine, to the Crisis of Value and the Dialectic of Taste

Following the contributions of Bourdieu, much of the academic study of food and culture focuses on the way social conceptions of taste are influenced by networks of distinction and belonging. While this work allows one to see how status and class inform taste, and how taste reinforces class and status, it tends to enclose the social faculty of taste behind the veil of misrecognition, one which obscures important historical relations between communities of taste and the wider political economy, including the crucial role taste plays in times of crisis and in the development of social critique. By investigating wine communities I saw something more in taste. I became interested in how communities of taste, across a wide spectrum of class and status groups, came not only to be shaped by shared conditions of economic crisis, but how in response to them, they endeavored to become agents of social change.

My recognition of the deep relation between aesthetic value and the crises of globalization took shape through my exploration of American wine cultures since the 1970s, in my dissertation Taste After Taste: On the Aesthetic Invitation of Wine. Beginning in the 1970s, I found that wine was called to lead a new form of invested and embodied consumption. Wine underwent a transformation from an elite beverage into an alpha-commodity, one charged not only to serve the contrasting needs of different classes, but increasingly, to serve the contradictory needs of production and consumption, that is, the contemporary need of production to extend value by opening new ‘boutique’ markets in the wake of mass production, and the pressing need of consumers to find ever more value in more intimate and authentic connections between themselves and commodities.

I recognized that this tension, between the promise of wine as a solution to social alienation and its increasingly instrumental role in the reproduction of capitalism under the banner of personalized consumption was a central driver in recent movements in wine history, such as the emergence of new world wines in the 1970s, the rise of wine critic Robert Parker and the ‘big’ wines in the 1980s, and the latest re-enchantment of wine staged by proponents of slow food and terroir. Wine, in each case, was structured to deliver on the imperative to expand the categories of labor, markets and consumers, just as it was increasingly called upon by consumers to deliver on the utopian promise of an alternative to an economy that reduces taste to economic purchase.

This is the dynamic that I examined in The Dialectic of Taste. I theorizes how twin, historically produced, crises of Value (in production and consumption) set in motion the forces that have propelled aesthetic concerns to the forefront of contemporary culture. In a sense, the dialectic of taste operates as a supplement to Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of the Enlightenment. Alongside the idea that reason sublates myth, only to give way to a mythic reason, and the idea that, through rationalization, freedom and progress yield to servitude and destruction, the dialectic of taste shows how contemporary historical conditions have forced even the most rationalized commodity to enter the social world as an aesthetic promise, one that has the potential to enable disconnected individuals a means to build proto-political communities.

Understanding the dialectic of taste not only helps us understand the historical connection between subjective concerns and increased mobility, accelerated economic cycles, and deteriorating environmental conditions, it helps us rethink the relation between aesthetic commodities and our social response to these interrelated crises. It helps explain why questions of taste and topics like “food and culture” have become urgent concerns for scholars in late capitalism, and it works to establish Taste as a critical social sensibility, one capable of apprehending the social complexity and social context of the objects we consume.