The Humanities as Spectacle

It’s been nearly a year since The Heart of the Matter, a congressionally ordered report on the state of the humanities and social sciences, was issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And while there is little to object to in the actual text, which brims with veracities on the importance of education and good citizenship, the smarting hasn’t really stopped.It started in the New York Times, where we immediately heard from three punditocratic naysayers. David Brooks, a member of the report commission, bemoaned the collective suicide of the humanities professoriat; Verlyn Klinkenborg lamented the decline and fall of the English major; and Stanley Fish excoriated the report itself for its “bland commonplaces” and “recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia” (and as a Miltonist, he knows that’s not the world we live in).Since then, no piece on the ever lingering crisis of the humanities can do without reference to The Heart of the Matter. This includes the valiant attempts to parry the latest volley of gloom, whether by asserting that the earnings potential for humanities majors isn’t so bad after all or by reporting that individual humanities departments are doing just fine (as in Scott Saul’s account of Berkeley’s English department).

But even if our classrooms remain packed, that still leaves the population at large. And there a basic contention remains unanswered: the by now self-evident truth that the humanities is a “public relations failure” (Fish ventriloquizing Klinkenborg). Humanists are just no good at explaining why their work matters. No wonder, then, that the public has little use for their efforts.

The marketing problem is such a commonplace in the debate, it goes virtually unremarked these days. But to me it raises a very basic question: Why is it the job of humanists to be their own advertisers? Other creative types have managers, agents, and publicists for that task, to say nothing of film studios, theaters, galleries, and museums—infrastructures, in other words, that allow the creators to focus on what they do best.

What would such an institution look like for humanists? As it happens, I help lead one. The Chicago Humanities Festival (, for which I serve as artistic director, is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. In fact, we were cited as such in The Heart of the Matter, praised for our success in “[inviting] academics and artists to share their passions and expertise with new audiences” (51).

We’re in our twenty-fifth year of doing so. Our annual fall festival features about a hundred events, always organized around a theme. Attendance is around fifty thousand, with hundreds of thousands more consuming our content digitally. Not your average public relations failure, we like to think.

How do we do it? How do we get thousands of people to come out to hear humanities professors lecture? It’s really quite simple: we treat our presenters as stars and our events as performances.

It’s probably best to think about this kind of operation in contrast to your typical university programming. Sure, university lectures are free and open to the public. But how would the public even know? Dreary leaflets on campus bulletin boards aren’t likely to draw a general audience. Nor would a general crowd feel particularly engaged by often dry and specialized presentations. (I hasten to add that in my other life as a university professor, I can get quite excited about an earnest announcement circulating on an electronic discussion list—but then I’m already sold on the product.)

Everything we do at the Chicago Humanities Festival is designed to break this barrier. We write tantalizing copy for our events, place our ads in all the local media, and hustle for coverage in those same media. We make sure that our featured talent appears in the best light possible. We think about stage sets and backdrops and fuss endlessly with our sound systems. Even more important, we spend a huge amount of time thinking about the best way to showcase a speaker. Is the great Harvard historian we invited known to go on and on when lecturing? No problem, we feature him in conversation with that gentle yet firm journalist who has a deep passion for the subject. Is there worry about the density of a speech on Continental philosophy? We coach the presenter in the joys of multimedia.

When it all works out, we get big, expectant audiences who, after basking in the erudition of our speakers (and asking sometimes stunningly insightful questions), can’t wait to come back for more.

This isn’t so different from the way other cultural organizations operate. Let me take an example from the world of opera, another domain whose utility could seem suspect in the glare of neoliberal scrutiny. When Anna Netrebko, a soprano, was scheduled to make her Chicago debut in the 2012–13 season, it brought shivers of anticipation to local opera fanatics. But for a good chunk of Lyric Opera’s patrons, she was just a Russian-sounding name. It was the task of the company to create the appropriate excitement for her bow as Mimì, to say nothing of providing her with all the theatrical props needed for an optimal performance. The result: a sold-out run and something approaching collective hysteria (of the good kind).

Why should it be so different for humanists? Sure, in the academy we recognize folks like Julia Kristeva, Frans de Waal, and Maria Tatar as stars (to mention three of the speakers who joined us for last fall’s festival, Animal: What Makes Us Human). But the academic stars, just like your average opera diva, needed a bit of professional marketing and a decent production to find and captivate their audience. Which is our job as a performing organization in the humanities, and after twenty-five years we know how to do it.

Imitators wanted!

Works Cited

Brooks, David. “The Humanist Vocation.” The New York Times. New York Times, 20 June 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Fish, Stanley. “A Case for the Humanities Not Made.” The New York Times. New York Times, 24 June 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

The Heart of the Matter. Amer. Acad. of Arts and Sciences, n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2014. <>.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. “The Decline and Fall of the English Major.” The New York Times. New York Times, 22 June 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Saul, Scott. “The Humanities in Crisis? Not at Most Schools.” The New York Times. New York Times, 3 July 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

Matti Bunzl is professor of anthology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, a position he leaves at the end of 2014 to become director of the Wien Museum in Vienna. A version of this paper was presented at the 2014 MLA convention in Chicago. An earlier version of it appeared in Inside Higher Ed.


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