John Mowitt's "The Humanities and the University in Ruins" unfolds with characteristic precision, elegance, and insight. Inviting his reader to desire a humanities that will have emancipated its inquiries from the two great forces that stifle it today, neoliberal political economy and Eurocentric knowledge production, Mowitt also steps aside from the rhetoric of crisis that for so long has been such an uncritically automatic part of the self-understanding of the humanities. Mowitt instead raises the question of the humanities within a much different lexicon, a lexicon some readers may be tempted to regard as not only heterodox but also antiquated: the labor theory of value. The result is a problematization of the humanities the central questions of which no longer derive from the rhetoric of crisis ("who are the internal and external enemies against whom the humanities must 'defend' itself?") but now in a much different set of questions, questions the difficulty of which makes the rhetoric of crisis seem consoling by contrast: What sort of labor is it that's entailed in the scholarly work of the humanities? What is it, exactly, that humanists do when they work? How is that work different than other sorts of work that takes place inside and outside of the late modern university? And what relation might exist between this work and the sorts of work and worklessness we witness today, in this moment of high crisis for late capitalism?
Begin with the obvious: there's no lack of cause today for humanists to feel menaced. We read these days about the threat posed to the humanities by the invading forces of neoliberalism and market logic, on the one hand, and instrumental reason and the applied sciences, on the other hand. We read of the corporatisation and privatisation of the university, and the poisonous effects those processes have upon the humanities (whether it be the rising costs of books and tuition for students, or the inability of talented graduate students to find the permanent teaching positions they need in order to be able to do their work as researchers and teachers). We read of aggressive proposals to save the university (whether by "emancipating" it of its ostensibly outdated desire to unify knowledge under the rubric of the terminal B.A. degree, or by casting it into the sea of the Internet). And we read stories, seemingly increasing by the day, of administrators who arbitrarily and summarily close down humanities programs that allegedly cannot pay for their own operation costs, and that are said, with shockingly little evidence, to be a drain on limited institutional resources.
Confronted by all of this, one can understand why a self-identified humanist would feel compelled to defend the humanities, and in particular to defend the humanities to the public. And not just any public, but a specific public, the public figured as a taxpaying public, a public the definitive hallmark of which is its desire to know what exactly it's receiving in exchange for its annual contributions to state and federal government.  By defending itself to the public so understood, the humanities presumably would be able to explain the indispensability of scholarly work that otherwise would risk appearing perfectly dispensable. And it should come as no surprise that many humanists recently have done just this, dutifully explaining to their readers that humanists are those who ask what it means to be human; who preserve and transmit to future generations the best that has been thought and said; who interpret texts from the past in their proper cultural and historical context; and who teach the habits of self-reflection and self-critique that are essential for any virtuous citizenship, especially for the sort of citizenship we imagine existing in the global age.
What's so curious about accounts of this sort, however, is how consistently the humanists who offer them betray, precisely in the way they offer their accounts, the very habits of thought they attempt to affirm within those same accounts. For example, defenders of the humanities sometimes like to quote The Apology of Socrates in support of the assertion that the essence of humanistic education is the discipline of constant self-examination, self-questioning, and self-criticism: "the unexamined life [anexetastos bios] is not worth living for a human being [biōtos anthrōpōi]."  And yet when the erstwhile defenders of the examined life find themselves questioned by the "taxpaying public," they oddly leave the concept of taxation precisely unexamined. The strangeness of this situation hardly can be underestimated: those who seek to defend the humanities to the public with reference to its hallmark discipline ("self-questioning") find themselves offering defenses in which they fail to question their own assumption of a concept, taxation, that the public, for its part (and different publics, needless to say, in different ways), is questioning (albeit, to be sure, with varying degrees of probity, intensity, and clarity). With a defense so self-defeating as this, is it really necessary for the humanities to await destruction from without?
How indeed should we understand the curious metonymy according to which "the public" to which humanists respond becomes implicitly figured as "the taxpaying public"? A loose association of this sort is not, of course, unprecedented: the office of the publicanus, in Roman Law, included the right to collect taxes. But what happens when taxation becomes the primary horizon for understanding the public's most basic concern, that element in public life to which one must speak inasmuch as one wishes really to speak to the public at all? More to the point, how might humanists' presuppositions about the figure of taxation—about the onus or burden taxation may or may not entail, about the toll it may or may not take on those who give it, about the relations it may or may not have to the gift—prefigure and implicitly govern the sorts of defenses humanists are inclined to give to the public of the humanities? Above all, what does it mean to be taxed, and why is it that, at a moment when the very notion of the tax seems to be the sharpest if most submerged edge of the attack on the humanities, so few humanists have elevated this notion to the level of an explicit problem for thought?
Even to be able to begin to take up these questions, to be sure, an immense amount of work would need to be done, most of which exceeds the scope of this text. One would need, for example, to inquire into the relation between the tax and the Roman Law concept of munus, this enigmatic term that, in a remarkable inquiry, Roberto Esposito has located as the mute but active kernel stirring within the notions of communitas and immunitas.  What we can and must address here, however, is the subtle but important appearance of taxation in the very text from which so many humanists today quote when they seek to defend the humanities to a skeptical public. In Plato’s The Apology of Socrates, we find a Socrates who tries to argue that the city who wants to sentence him to death for impiety actually needs him more than it supposes. Without the stings and bites of philosophic questioning, the democratic public will not know what it is talking about, will not know what it wants, and may even revert to tyranny, destroying its own democracy. As swattable as this stinging insect, this gadfly, might be, the public therefore actually should be grateful for this strange beast, this philosopher. After this defense fails, Socrates then makes a most surprising plea to his accusers. Instead of putting him to death, Socrates argues, the public should maintain him in the Prytaneum, the sacred center of Athenian community, drawing on the public purse to exempt him from the need to procure, for himself, the basic necessities of life (food and drink). The reasoning behind this proposal is even more surprising: without the leisure (skolen) this exemption gives him, the philosopher will be unable to undertake the important work of acting like an animal (an aggressive insect) toward the very public whose taxes sustain his animal life (his zoē).  After this plea fails, as it must, we eventually find the Socrates of the Crito, the Socrates who could but does not flee his fate, and who instead willingly accepts his own capital punishment, in ostensibly wise obedience to the laws of the city, nobly drinking the poison the city has prepared for him.
Humanists who defend the humanities to the public today sometimes invoke the words of The Apology of Socrates in their defenses as if the conclusion of Socrates' defense—the sentence of death—were somehow not an essential and necessary part of that defense. But The Apology of Socrates is, as Kierkegaard argued, precisely a defenseless defense: it is an ironic defense, a defense of the examined life that, on principle, seems not at all designed to succeed in the task of defending the examined life.  It is a defense that, in fact, seems to find redeeming value in the ironic self-consciousness with which the philosopher willingly accepts the verdict, the decision for death, that is passed upon him by the tragically uncomprehending democratic public—a public that, above all, seems not to consent to the notion that its taxes ought to be spent to maintain the life a parasitic figure who, in turn, spends his leisure-time teaching the children of the rich how to bite and sting the very host that sustains them. Repurposed as a defense of the humanities, there's no reason to believe that the Socratic defense would operate any less aporetically. Humanists' habitual recourse to the Socratic, as a paradigm for defending the humanities to the taxpaying public, instead seems structured by an insoluble impasse. To the extent we read The Apology of Socrates unironically, as a trial the outcome of which could have been otherwise had the proponent of the "examined life" only represented himself in court with greater wisdom, our defense of the humanities in Socratic terms betrays the very tradition and the very figure in whose name we so confidently speak. But to the extent we read it ironically, as a constitutively defenseless defense, we will have reason to worry that the Socratic paradigm will offer to the humanities little more than the consolations of a tragic narrative plot, a plot that allows the humanities to pass away, but at least having died a noble death, a death more philosophic than unphilosophic, more ironic than unironic.
That there is therefore an important sense in which the Socratic paradigm is precisely impossible for the humanities to inherit does not, of course, diminish its necessity or even desirability for thinking about the humanities today. What it should cause us to doubt, however, is the self-evidence of references to the Socratic within the rhetoric of the defense of the humanities, particularly inasmuch as those references imply, as they often do, that the Socratic is not only the most obvious but also the best paradigm for thinking about the humanities. There is, after all, a clear prior condition on which the Socratic paradigm may succeed in representing itself as that part of the humanities whose plan for the preservation of the humanities, such as it is, can or should represent the future of the humanities as a whole: that we leave undefended the many modes of humanistic inquiry that do not consent to the privileged status of the Socratic paradigm. Here it’s necessary to keep in mind an insight offered by Bruce Robbins some years ago: the figure of an "outside public" is usually conjured up within the academe by the consummate academic insider, who then treats this figure as a premise for defining and policing the range of legitimate work that may and may not take place inside the academe.  But even this sort of cunning machination can't escape the impasses of inheritance we've outlined above. For if anything, the Socratic lives on most forcefully today in those threads of humanistic inquiry whose commitment to incessant questioning leads them to chew up the enthymemes of the public, up to and including the enthymeme that the Socratic tradition is a precious legacy of Western civilization that must be protected at all costs. In this case, the explicitly Socratic defense of the humanities, precisely to the extent it succeeds in persuading the taxpaying public to maintain only those humanistic inquiries that appear to conform to the Socratic mode, will run the risk of expelling from the humanities the humanities' most impious, and for that same reason most implicitly Socratic, questions. This, of course, would be tragic. But it would not be the first time in the history of disciplinary reason that an academic discipline will have sought, as the condition for its own self-preservation, to purge from itself its excessively proximate doubles, its scapegoats, its pharmakoi. 
By formulating the question of the humanities not in juridical terms (i.e., in terms of apologia or "defense"), but in terms of labor, Mowitt effects a decisive re-orientation of the Socratic paradigm: he recapitulates much more fully than do even the often complacent proponents of the Socratic paradigm one of the aporias that troubles that paradigm from within. It's well-known that the Greek term in Plato’s The Apology of Socrates usually translated with the English "leisure" is one of those great Freudian words, a word with a forgotten, and to that same degree revealing, etymological itinerary. The word in question, skolē, would give rise first to the Latin schola, and thence, via the Latin, to more familiar terms such as "scholar" and "school." Etymologically, at least, terms like "scholarly work" or "works of scholarship" are thus the site for something very much like a contradiction in terms, signifying in effect a kind of work the indispensable condition for which is, especially in Plato, the very opposite of work. And whereas many if not most of today's defenders of the humanities remain silent on this aporia, preferring instead more automatic claims about the "unexamined life," Mowitt raises its contemporary iteration to the level of a problem of the first and highest order. With what terms may we speak about work that appears not to be work at all—that, even and especially in its most assiduous forms, seems to entail inactivity and idleness (or, to gloss Nietzsche, ""sitting on one’s ass" )? And what does it mean to speak of such work today, at a moment not only when so many both outside and inside the academe are without work, but also when revolutions in techniques of information storage and retrieval seem to give to so many the ability to perform something very much resembling scholarly work?
The significance of Mowitt's text consists not least in his attempt to develop a lexicon to respond to such questions. It's not for nothing that the "re:" in Mowitt's "re: working" abbreviates the "re-" that many electronic mail programs automatically generate in their "Subject" heading when users indicate through keystrokes their desire to produce a "response" to an incoming message. With this, Mowitt seems to want to ask us to think "working" within the framework of late modern information technology, where, taken to the extreme, it becomes the name not of this or that particular type of work but of another aporia, this one pertaining less to "scholarly work" in the humanities than to the conditions under which that work is reproduced—or, even more to the point, the sense in which that work consists of nothing other than reproducibility, or at least, of reproducibility of a specific sort.
On the one hand, it seems axiomatic that no work in the humanities can take place that is not also, or even primarily, involved in the reproduction of this or that tradition, the transmission of this or that inheritance. This, it would seem, was one of the basic stakes in the "culture wars" that raged in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s: behind the explicit disagreement over which inheritances should be transmitted to students, there seemed to have been implicit agreement on the premise that the general function of humanities, understood now as an administrative unit within the modern university, was the reproduction and transmission of knowledge about culture. The prior conditions for knowledge's reproducibility and transmissibility, however, are that it assume the form of a trace, and that these traces, in turn, be recorded and inscribed, archived and instituted, safeguarded and storehoused, in specific sorts of technical apparatuses (primarily, but not exclusively, books and libraries).  If it is true that there can be no humanities without the transmissibility or reproducibility of knowledge, so too, in other words, can there be no humanities that does not in some way rely on technē. And although humanists habitually speak of technics as the constitutive exterior of the humanities (whether in the form of the "instrumental reason" of the natural and social sciences, or as the "vocational-technical" training against which the humanities defined itself in the twentieth century), it thus would be more precise to say that one of the primary functions of the humanities, perhaps even its very vocation, is impossible without technics, or, in short, that technics of a certain sort is the indispensable condition for the continued existence of the humanities.
On the other hand, however, the humanities' presupposition of technics is precisely also the site at which the humanities seems most vulnerable to crisis, even to terminal crisis. This vulnerability, we would want to insist, is different from, though not of course unrelated to, the various crises the humanities has identified for itself as the threats that menace it in the immediate present. It’s one that owes its specific torque and thrust to the "permanent crisis" of capitalist innovation, which for decades now has focused its forces nowhere more intently than on instruments of information storage and retrieval. To truly grasp the nettle of this crisis, Marx's insights into the dynamics of capitalist "permanent revolution" are, far from being antiquated, more imperative than ever. The miraculous technologies created within the framework of capitalism (such as electronic mail, whose automated "re:" Mowitt asks us to rethink) consistently produce, as one of their regularly side-effects, the potential for the increasing superfluity of certain sorts of workers (say, postal workers, whose "inflexible" contracts have been, in the U.S. at least, the source of considerable neoliberal criticism).  Whence the importance of Mowitt's "re: working": de-abbreviated, it sends us a message about the need to respond to the teletechnical conditions for the crisis of "scholarly work" today. Apparatuses of information technology, on which humanistic work in the university increasingly depend and even affirm, also function to render humanistic work increasingly dispensable.
And not in the future tense, either. As various polemicists recently have made perfectly clear, the internet and its cousins give us the ability to reconcile the conflict between, on the one hand, too many universities that cannot control their rising costs and, on the other hand, too many students who cannot afford the rising costs of tuition.  This apparent "win-win solution" clearly will have special application in developing economies, whose need or desire to finance the creation of new institutions of higher education will be undercut, if not supplanted altogether, by the existing supply of knowledge flowing in from northern satellites, databases, and digitized archives. For these polemicists, who in effect seek to resuscitate the old Arnoldian mission of the humanities now within a horizon defined by information technology (the euphemistic watchword of which is "access") and neoliberal political economy (which reduces all to the temporariness of consumer choice under the watchword of "flexibility"), it’s perfectly obvious that all this flesh, all this stiff brick and mortar, is no longer necessary or even desirable as a means for accomplishing the end, as it were, of the humanities. The screen on which these words appear, those flickering pixels there in your eye—all of this, inasmuch as it heralds the coming superfluity of the university and its workers, conveys the counterintuitive threat that a certain humanities, a radically abbreviated humanities, shall survive the end of the university, and this not despite but precisely because of the technics it presupposes.
All of this, it would seem, is in play in the lexicon Mowitt offers us for rethinking the specific sort of "scholarly work" the humanities entails. The decisive point would be that the forces which threaten to stifle the humanities derive less from the outside of the humanities, than from its extimate interior, from the non-identity with itself of the very "scholarly work" that defines its innermost inside. On this understanding, the conditions that allow for the humanities' normal operation also require it to remain open and exposed to the very dynamics that threaten it with with obsolescence. To protect itself against this threat (say, by reacting to the desacralizing touch of teletechnics by withdrawing from it altogether, by resacralizing the book and the experience of reading), would be to negate its very conditions of possibility, and thence too to guarantee its obsolescence (repeating, only now in contemporary forms, the archaic esotericism of Plato's academe, Aristotle's school, or the Thomistic monastery ). And yet the threat is not imagined, and the liquefying, profaning energies of capitalist crisis, as experienced this time by humanists, cannot be outstripped by displacing the ailment upon scapegoats internal (the various figures of impiety today, e.g., "queer theory," "antihumanism," "postcolonialism," "cultural studies," etc.) or external ("instrumental reason," "administrators," the "taxpaying public," etc.). The predicament at the core of the crisis of the humanities is, on this read, a specific declension of the same predicament that's intensifying by the day in other domains of late modern capitalism, where the reproduction of capital demands double-or-nothing bets on constant technical innovation, and where no new technical innovation comes into being absent the potential to produce populations whose life and labor is, precisely, superfluous for capitalist reproduction. And if in recent years this crisis seems more concentrated in the university than elsewhere, not only is this no reason to defend the humanities in the usual Socratic mode; it's all the more reason to de-automate the humanities' response to questions about the nature of its "scholarly work," suspending our mechanized references to paradigms of the "unexamined life," in order to respond now anew to the increasingly distressed experience of work of which the crisis of the humanities is, in the end, but a metonym.
Which leads, in closing, to a thought on Mowitt's own response. If humanistic scholarship is a sort of work, and if Mowitt's discourse is an example of humanistic scholarship, then what sort of scholarly work do we find exemplified in his discourse? Of what sort of scholarly work, in other words, might Mowitt's text be paradigmatic? The difficulty of the question is hardly decreased by the fact that Mowitt's discourse unfolds not only by recalling but also by breaking with various paradigms of academic labor. What then is the paradigm for a type of scholarly work that seems to consist mainly or even exclusively of relinquishing prior paradigms of scholarly work? What sort of work is it that, by showing painstakingly how each of these paradigms dehisces from within, seems to leave us at a loss for examples to illuminate our work? And what if loss, or at least some relation to loss, were in fact an essential part of this work? What if, in other words, work in the humanities were to consist in a relationship not only to the texts of the past, as some humanists claim, but more precisely to texts that imply the death of their author and addressee (or, in other words, all texts )? Would we then agree that no fully self-conscious work in the humanities could proceed without recognizing the extent to which it entails the work of mourning?
What work is that? Writing in the wake of World War I, not long before Walter Benjamin began writing his great work on Trauerspiel, Freud began outlining a paradigm of "normal" grief in which the work of grieving (Trauerarbeit) entailed the work of a particular sort of remembering. Faced with the loss of an object I love (whether a loved person or some abstraction that has taken the place of a person), I recall the lost object obsessively and involuntarily, in extraordinary detail. Not despite but because of the pain involved in this recollection, I find myself able to divest myself of my libidinal "investments" in the lost object, to reinvest myself in a substitute object, and in so doing to rediscover my very desire to live, returning myself once more to the living present, where I find anew an ability, the ability to say "I," I'd lost in the pneumonia of my grief. In the case of melancholia, by contrast, my mourning-work hits up against an insuperable limit. Even, especially, in my obsessive recollections of the lost object, I can't bring myself to recall that my investments in this object consist not only of love but also of hate. I thus find that my ability to "work through" my loss is resisted by a force, my ambivalence, that I can't admit to myself, that's too great for me to recall or break through. In this "pathological" case of mourning, not only do I never recover my ability to say "I," I also begin to identify with the lost object I now interminably mourn, incorporating into my own voice and gaze the voice and gaze of the lost object. I place myself outside of myself, over there in the darkness of my loss, the place from which I'm seen, but into which I can't see. If in the case of "normal" mourning, I decathect from the outside world, regarding it as destitute and forlorn, in the "pathological" case of melancholia, I decathect from "me," regarding my very "ego" as an abject, impoverished, and worthless thing, as refuse or waste. I continue to say "I," but in an important sense the "I" from whose standpoint I speak is no longer a living "I." It's a dead "I," an "I" that accuses me all the more constantly and mercilessly for the fact that it speaks to me from a position to which I'm unable to respond, and yet into the irreversible silence of which I'm increasingly drawn, through the agency of an awful mimesis. 
It is striking how closely the clinical symptoms of pathological mourning seem to resemble humanists' self-descriptions of the normal practices of humanistic work. The humanist, just like the melancholic, seems to work by taking himself as the object of an incessant criticism, turning his "subjectivity" into the "object" of a critical knowledge the techniques of which he then seeks to transmit to his students (sometimes in the form of "conscience"). The humanist, also like the melancholic, not infrequently seems to identify himself with a dead person whose name (or, more often, patronym, for much discourse on mourning is a discourse of fathers and sons) he incorporates into his account of himself, where it then functions precisely as a name for the sort of work he does (where statements of the sort, "I am a Platonist" mean nothing other than the incorporation of Plato's voice and views into one's own voice and views). For some working in the humanities, the elegiac quality of humanistic work would appear to be in no need of elaboration: the explicit purpose of the humanities, for these scholars, is to preserve existing traditions of thought—traditions that, but for the perpetual requiem that keeps them alive for generation upon generation of students, will have become lost once and for all to oblivion. For these humanists—whose work is, needless to say, the most endangered by the emergence of information retrieval systems—the more obsessive and detailed the recollection, the more faithfully the lost object is conjured up, resurrected, saved from oblivion, and transmitted to new generations, the better the humanistic work is as such. For others working in the humanities, by contrast, the point of humanistic work would seem not to be to protect against the potential loss of existing traditions, but to mourn and repair traditions that would have existed in a more robust form but for their traumatic damage, or even outright destruction, by "crimes which men can neither punish nor forgive."  The latter is of course very different from, even opposed to the former: the former is inclined toward a narrative of decline (that the best that has been thought and said is at risk of being degraded and lost), the latter toward a narrative of grievance (that the sufficient condition for any fully self-conscious work in the humanities is answerability for the inhumanity with which existing humanistic traditions have hitherto coexisted). But despite these differences, they seem to share a similar lexicon: loss, though of very different modalities and relating to very different traditions and objects, would seem to provide these otherwise opposed humanists with the vocabulary for speaking about their scholarly work. Humanists, on this read, would have more than a little in common with Zakes Mda's "professional mourners" ; they would be professional melancholics.
For at least one heterodox thinker of institutions, this would amount to more than a mere prima facie resemblance. In his 1977 essay "The Institution of Rot," Michel de Certeau outlined the subjective conditions of possibility for institutions that seek to reproduce and transmit such high ideals such as "meaning, right, or truth."  On de Certeau's account, the public work of these institutions depends on a prior work, an intimate and even secret work, a particular sort of work of the self upon the self. Before I'm able to fill myself with the great voices and views I then reproduce and transmit in and to the public, I first must convert myself into an empty vessel capable of containing those voices and views. But the prior work by which I accomplish this conversion is nothing other than the abjection that is the hallmark of melancholia: only by first establishing for myself that "I'm not worthy" am I then able to hollow myself out in the manner demanded of me by my institution's public dimension, turning myself into a receptacle capable of hosting a voice and gaze that, in contrast to my own, do possess value. Melancholic dispositions (affects of filth, corruption, and putrescence) are thus the indispensable condition for the transmission of sublime inheritances, for the conversion of the self into one of those technical apparatuses that's able to operate as a device for the transmissibility of tradition. Far from being the opposite of technics, melancholia is here the mode or mood specific to technics, at least a technics of a very specific sort: it's the primary means through which institutions of "meaning, right, and truth" administer the "rot" they secretly require (but also, of course, publicly disavow) as the subjective condition for their normal operation.
Mowitt is, needless to say, anything but silent on the work of mourning. He begins by explicitly placing his inquiry into the university under the interpretive key of the Benjaminian figure of "ruins," which he takes up from a scholar, Bill Readings, who died before his time; and he ends by discussing how it is that we might think death and negativity without the consolations of dialectical reason. But even though Mowitt's response "re: working" seems therefore to participate in the work of mourning, it would be off the mark to treat this proximity as an identity. To affirm the work of the humanities, as Mowitt invites us to, it would seem necessary to render inoperative the apparatus of professional melancholia. More to the point, it would seem necessary to think the trace of death entailed in every text—up to and including the sort of trace that, in the age of teletechnical information storage and retrieval, allows for the death of the humanities. This would be a trace that the institution administers in its subjects, that it sets to work upon us and sets us in turn to work upon, but that, despite or because of its status as the dead center of scholarly work in the humanities, the institution cannot think on its own terms. From this perspective, the most exemplary work of Mowitt's text would be its resistance to and distance from the very paradigm of grief-work to which its "re: working" is otherwise so constantly close. It's as if the work of mourning were even the main sort of work that humanists need to rework in order to begin affirming their work, as if the future of the humanities would begin when we can affirm even, especially, the loss of the discourse of loss. As if, rather than continue to work in an institution of rot, we could inaugurate instead a relation to text that, existing as it does at the vanishing point between Trauerarbeit and Trauerspiel, between a certain kind of work and a certain kind of play, in turn heralds an experience, that of unalienated labor, the very idea of which our self-destructive democracies seem to need, today more than ever, to ridicule and to deny.