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Floating Bodies, or the Value of the Humanities

October 17, 2014

Recently I had the great delight of attending my first meeting of the honours programme in the Humanities here in Utrecht.  In the second semester, I will be teaching the course in ‘surverying the landscape’ of media and cultural studies.  It’s an exciting programme to be part of, especially having seen the kinds of projects the students have done, including  “Outlawed” ,a  documentary on asylum seekers held in legal limbo in the Netherlands.

One of the recurring themes of the programme is the value of the humanities.  The students themselves were puzzling over this – one asked about whether their programme should feature more ‘practical’ orientation.   Ironically, the same day I was attending the meeting of the honours college, there was a debut of a documentary on the value of the humanities (some of it is in Dutch, but most is in English).  It’s worth watching: smart people like Rosi Braidotti and Wendy Brown talking very good sense, plus you get some glimpses of the beautiful loactions I get to haunt in Utrecht (as well as a lecture hall, where I sometimes teach).

In thinking about this, however, my mind has been on a different film, the one we selected as the winner of the Film Prize of the City of Utrecht: Floating Bodies (Waterlijken)  (Nelleke Koop, Self-made Films, 2014). As the title of the film suggests, it is about corpses that are found in the water, or, more accurately, it is about the people who are in charge of dealing with them and the work they do.   Through visuals of the work of police, coroners, technicians, orderlies, as well as interviews, it follows the process by which a corpse becames an object of study, and then once more a human being.  You see the skills that civil sevants put in to their work, also about the support systems in place if it becomes too much for them.  And apparently, sometimes it does.  You also see little things, like the care they take in making the body presentable for the relatives.  Surprisingly, perhaps, it is a beautiful film, though as with many beautiful films, I am in no rush to see it again.   It avoids making a spectacle of the bodies, but neither does it leave many illusions about the nature of the phenomenon.

Too often, there still seems to be a view of humanities as a floating body: detached, loose, overly concerned with dead and past things, no longer entirely of this world.  Its value, or even its nature, is fundamentally uncertain. A film like Floating Bodies actually offers us two other views of the value of the humanities. One is that of the film-maker, who by a series of expressive techniques (for which we in media and cultural studies have developed a range of analytical tools and ways of thinking about) is able to explore the values, cares and meanings that go into the work of the state.  It holds them to the light, and explores the fundamental questions, including (as Rosi Braidotti also mentions) what it actually means to be human,  why some things are better heard described than seen, who takes on such work, and why.

But I think even more importantly, there are the values that emerge from the civil servants that the film shows.  The work they do falls under biology, medicine, law.  But the reason they do their jobs is because this society thinks it’s important that human bodies are not left in the water.  We need to identify those bodies, we need to know what broke them, what relationships they had, and how those relations can be repaired (presenting them to their relatives with dignity: reassembled into human-ness).  This may be a civil service, but it is also a human ritual that exists because we need it to.  The value of this work cannot be measured in economic terms, or at least not effectively.  Its public value is self-evident.  Somebody needs to do this work.

We, as a society, are served by having people who do this work well. And for that, as a society, we need the humanities.  A robust ability to recognize, analyse, explore and question the meanings and values of human endeavour are part of the skillset of a healthy society. For that, we need training grounds – universities. They are not the only training grounds, to be sure, but they are purpose-built and have centuries of experience.  The skills we teach are practical skills for a wide range of professions.  Robust material support for that endeavour has self-evident public value.

Somebody needs to do this work.

To put this plainly: The practical value of the humanities lies in exploring and understanding the human value of practices. As such, the answer to the question of the economic value of the humanities should never be given in numbers: it is that somebody has to question the human value of economics.

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