To some degree at least, the study of the humanities always seems to have been at odds with society, in a relation of fascination, repulsion and interdependence. Nevertheless, democratic societies have always acknowledged
the use and even the necessity of independent centers of knowledge functioning
by means of different rules than society as a whole and with other standards and values than financial and political power. This situation is apparently changing. The developments of recent years have posed new challenges for the humanities, new subjects to be explored and new disciplines to be organized, and this is basically fine; but a number of fundamental questions have also emerged concerning the role and use of the humanities now and in the future. The objective of this paper is to address these questions. It will take the form of a dialogue between two voices representing different perspectives on the issue. In the first part a pessimistic voice explores the negative consequences for the study of language and literature of globalization, of the ideology of neo-liberalism and of the more general condition of postmodernity. In the second part a more optimistic voice tries to give more definite form to the positive side of the argument by suggesting new relations between literature and society.