An essay formerly known as ‘How to say “sophomoric wankery” in High Valyrian.’
I once wrote a thinkpiece that clumsily linked an obscure theory of philosophy with the fantasy worlds created by George RR Martin and his contemporaries.
I was pleasantly surprised by the relatively high readership of that piece, due in no small part to it being shared by the Westeros.org Twitter account and Facebook page. It also attracted a little bit of criticism that suggested it was self-indulgent or, in the words of the commenter, “sophomoric wankery.” Same thing really.
If we apply this kind of instrumental determinism that equates thought to indulgence, there isn’t much left of human endeavour or history that really matters at all. Sure, philosophy is indulgent. Sure, fantasy literature is indulgent. Combining the two is, perhaps, doubly decadent. Yet, does that mean we shouldn’t pursue them?
Studies of philosophy, literature, the arts and humanities in general have long fought off criticisms of irrelevance. In recent times, these are the first programs to face cuts when university administrators or governments want to save money. Yet the same instrumental logic that says it matters not whether we understand how human cultures came to be could put a great many other things under budgetary pressure.
Most of the asocial sciences, with their insistence upon the physical and material fact as they understand it, are irrelevant to human life in the here and now. In this sense, they are undoubtedly indulgent. Which of the recent discoveries about the early universe, the origin of life on earth, or future cancer treatment are fundamental to survival today? This is the kind of thinking the instrumental logic of my erstwhile commenter promotes.
Beyond food production — and, perhaps, warfare — very little of what humans have ever achieved can be understood to have been immediately and insistently important. It’s all speculative, with a view to possible long-term improvements in the human condition.
Some of it, like most of the humanities, works toward discovering and considering the human-in-context as the base mode of operation. Other knowledge production takes the view that the non-human is most important and the human is possibly irrelevant. The difference between the two is only that the humanities acknowledges their bias. Whatever the mode, the kinds of inquiry undertaken by scientists, artists, writers, theorists and thinkers the world over — outside and inside of universities — should be valued.
Instead of applying the logic that unless this helps me in the here and now it is totally irrelevant, we should be thinking of the long-term. We should be thinking of the human penchant for discovery and innovation. For the opportunity to combine and create, not just today and tomorrow but over centuries past and future.
There’s a certain kind of narrowness of thought that dismisses anything for which we as individuals can see no value as absolutely having no value for society or the planet. It’s the same logic that leads to petty squabbles for money for my favourite cause versus your favourite cause without thinking through the greater applications and the opportunities to work together. It’s the logic that pervades political bickering over how to address the world’s great challenges, moral and material.
The only way to overcome those problems, and whatever other concerns crop up in the future, is to work through them as a community of humans valuing and welcoming the contributions of all. It’s going to take more than a village.