Melancholy in the Humanities: Lamenting the "Ruins" of Time between Bill Readings and Augustine

By Ball, Karyn | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview
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Melancholy in the Humanities: Lamenting the "Ruins" of Time between Bill Readings and Augustine

Ball, Karyn, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

In The University in Ruins, Bill Readings traces shifting ideas about the university from the writings of Kant and von Humboldt to their "ruins" in a managerial newspeak that prioritizes profitable programs over humanities scholarship and teaching. The author contends that Readings narrates the dehiscence of these ideas in the form of a lament, even as he urges humanities faculty to abandon melancholic fixations on our deteriorating prestige and besieged values. This article recasts Readings's account in light of Paul Ricoeur's explication of the Augustinian lament to speculate about the ontological lineaments of a sense of lost time among human scientists.


A surge of interest among cultural critics and theorists in the conception and literature of melancholy over the last two decades has raised questions about its impetus in and beyond the humanities. In other contexts, I have questioned whether this preoccupation attests to declining morale in the face of changing labor conditions among those teachers and researchers who continue to adopt Bill Readings's The University in Ruins (1996) as a reference point for exchanges about the future of the human sciences in an increasingly corporatized university. (1) Readings's description of the current predicament of the university in general, and the humanities in particular, both criticizes and performs the melancholic presentiments that overdetermine debates about the faltering mission of the liberal arts. What is remarkable about Readings's intervention is that even as it seeks to motivate humanities faculty to forsake despondent fixations on our lost prestige and cultural capital, or our harried intellectual ideals, it, nevertheless, narrates the history of these shifting investments in the form of a lament that presumes the decay of their force and presence over lime. This article recasts The University in Ruins in light of Paul Ricoeur's explication of the form of the Augustinian lament in older to speculate about the ontological lineaments of a melancholic temporality among researchers in the human sciences.

I. Ruined Ideals

Philosophy is hounded by the fear that it loses prestige and validity if it is not a science. Not to be a science is taken as a failing, which is equivalent to being unscientific.... Thinking is judged by a standard that does not measure up to it. Such judgment may be compared to the procedure of trying to evaluate the nature and powers of a fish by seeing how long it can live on dry land.

--Martin Heidegger, "Letter on Humanism" 195

As a young and very naive intellectual, I used to cherish the life of the mind as a higher realm buoyed by the assumption that our society revered the pleasure of learning as an unquestioned asset. Nowadays, it strikes me that only the most earnest among us cling to the prestige of serving as purveyors of enlightenment through reason for its own sake. However, an October 2006 editorial published in the New York Times should quickly lay the last hopes of even these sappiest of optimists to rest. This death knell comes to us in the words of Eugene Hickok, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the former deputy secretary of education during President George W. Bush's first term. (2) Hickok complains that President Bush's policy of "no child left behind" should apply to undergraduates whose reading competency and comprehension are declining. He calls for greater accountability from institutions of higher learning in the United States, and for more accurate measures of student achievement. Rather than looking at the under-funded condition of public education as a whole, and the dissipation of reading, he blames impoverished skills on a lazy, entitled faculty who, according to Hickok, decide "what they want to teach and when they want to teach, if indeed, they teach at all." This "is particularly true regarding undergraduate instruction, which is something of an afterthought on many campuses.

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