Excerpt from Gregg Lambert’s “The Future of the Humanities”

On September 25, 2012, Prof. Gregg Lambert of Syracuse University’s Humanities Center, joined us in Tuscaloosa to present a public lecture entitled “The Future of the Humanities”*–the inaugural lecture in this year’s series on the place of the Humanities and Social Sciences in the contemporary university. As with all future talks in this series, we plan to post an excerpt from the lecture soon after it is delivered, inviting comments from those in attendance or from those reading this blog, knowing also that the lecturer is always invited either to post a new blog or respond to comments from other to these excerpts.


Excerpt from “The Future of the Humanities”*

As I will return to discuss in the conclusion, given the growth of the tertiary sector globally [i.e., the service sector of the economy], let us briefly return to Marx’s earlier model. The problem with Marx’s entire theory of labour power is that it was premised upon the dominance of the manufacturing sector of 19th century economies in England and Germany, in which creativity and imagination were not among the potential to be developed as human capital stocks, and thus only belonged to the capitalists who creatively and imaginatively buy and sell labor or commodities. A worker did not need to be creative in most skills, only technically knowledgeable, and the only requirement was that he could be trained to perform a skill. Later on, the level technical knowledge increased and national programs of literacy and quantitative skills were put in place to train new classes of workers.

Today, the economy is much different than in Marx’s time, and creativity and imagination are premium values in the service sector, even though these values are defined as intangibles, they are nevertheless transforming the role and values of higher education and the Humanities especially, which are importing these intangibles (including the forms of celebrity, branding, and fame) into their very mode of producing knowledge. Let me put this somewhat provocatively by translating this back into a Marxist language—the worker, or agent of human capital, must actually function both as a property and as capitalist in his or bid to enter the market defined by the service sector. That is to say, a new kind of slavery has been produced by the economy today—a “creative slave,” who is in fact identical with what we call the “creative capitalist,” They are one and the same agency of human capital. which in some sense replaces Marx’s description of the bourgeois subject as a Machiavellian individual, or a “cunning slave,” a form of subjectivity that was already prefigured in Shakespeare in the likes of Iago. To quote the lines from Marx above: “The fact that a man is continually compelled to sell his labour power, i.e., himself, to another man proves, according to those economists, that he is a capitalist, because he constantly has “commodities” (himself) for sale.”

The problem with Marx’s theory was the strict division between actual labour and labour power (which is the pure potentiality of future labour). It is the necessity of selling, all at once, one’s labour power, pure capacity to produce capital, that will translate into “debt” as I will discuss in the conclusion. In other words, the mere ability to work actually is of little value in our economy, and in fact consigns one to those classes who belong to a diminishing and devalued sector of the total economy. “The working class” is simply a form of national property today that capitalists trade on the global market; hence, the value of one national working class goes down in proportion to the cost of labour in another global sector such as China and Mexico.  Instead, “Creativity” and “Imagination” are precisely the intangible values of potential labor that are bought and sold on the market today in the person of the individual agent of human capital. In other words, as in speculation, the student today is defined as someone who doesn’t sell his or her labour, but rather in demonstrating the capacity for creativity and imagination, must devise new forms and manners of selling his future capital—his or her pure labour power, his or her future labor, which is valued in terms of success, fame, promise, celebrity, and the unique identity that defines the highest expressions of individuality belonging to our economy…

* At the time of this post this lecture is unpublished.