Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, July 25, 2016

some thoughts on the humanities

I can't say too much about this right now, but I have been working with some very smart people on a kind of State of the Humanities document — and yes, I know there are hundreds of those, but ours differs from the others by being really good.

In the process of drafting a document, I wrote a section that ... well, it got cut. I'm not bitter about that, I am not at all bitter about that. But I'm going to post it here. (It is, I should emphasize, just a draft and I may want to revise and expand it later.)

Nearly fifty years ago, George Steiner wrote of the peculiar character of intellectual life “in a post-condition” — the perceived sense of living in the vague aftermath of structures and beliefs that can never be restored. Such a condition is often proclaimed as liberating, but at least equally often it is experienced as (in Matthew Arnold's words) a suspension between two worlds, “one dead, / The other powerless to be born.” In the decades since Steiner wrote, humanistic study has been more and more completely understood as something we do from within such a post-condition.

But the humanities cannot be pursued and practiced with any integrity if these feelings of belatedness are merely accepted, without critical reflection and interrogation. In part this is because, whatever else humanistic study is, it is necessarily critical and inquiring in whatever subject it takes up; but also because humanistic study has always been and must always be willing to let the past speak to the present, as well as the present to the past. The work, the life, of the humanities may be summed up in an image from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941):

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before.You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

It is from this ‘unending conversation’ that the materials of your drama arise.

It is in this spirit that scholars of the humanities need to take up the claims that our movement is characterized by what it has left behind — the conceptual schemes, or ideologies, or épistèmes, to which it is thought to be “post.” In order to grasp the challenges and opportunities of the present moment, three facets of our post-condition need to be addressed: the postmodern, the posthuman, and the postsecular.

Among these terms, postmodern was the first-coined, and was so overused for decades that it now seems hoary with age. But it is the concept that lays the foundation for the others. To be postmodern, according to the most widely shared account, is to live in the aftermath of the collapse of a great narrative, one that began in the period that used to be linked with the Renaissance and Reformation but is now typically called the “early modern.” The early modern — we are told, with varying stresses and tones, by host of books and thinkers from Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses (1966) to Stephen Grenblatt’s The Swerve (2011) — marks the first emergence of Man, the free-standing, liberated, sovereign subject, on a path of self-emancipation (from the bondage of superstition and myth) and self-enlightenment (out of the darkness that precedes the reign of Reason). Among the instruments that assisted this emancipation, none were more vital than the studia humanitatis — the humanities. The humanities simply are, in this account of modernity, the discourses and disciplines of Man. And therefore if that narrative has unraveled, if the age of Man is over — as Rimbaud wrote, “Car l’Homme a fini! l’Homme a joué tous les rôles!” — what becomes of the humanities?

This logic is still more explicit and forceful with regard to the posthuman. The idea of the posthuman assumes the collapse of the narrative of Man and adds to it an emphasis on the possibility of remaking human beings through digital and biological technologies leading ultimately to a transhuman mode of being. From within the logic of this technocratic regime the humanities will seem irrelevant, a quaint relic of an archaic world.

The postsecular is a variant on or extension of the postmodern in that it associates the narrative of man with a “Whig interpretation of history,” an account of the past 500 years as a story of inevitable progressive emancipation from ancient, confining social structures, especially those associated with religion. But if the age of Man is over, can the story of inevitable secularization survive it? The suspicion that it cannot generates the rhetoric of the postsecular.

(In some respects the idea of the postsecular stands in manifest tension with the posthuman — but not in all. The idea that the posthuman experience can be in some sense a religious one thrives in science fiction and in discursive books such as Erik Davis’s TechGnosis [1998] and Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines [1999] — the “spiritual” for Kurzweil being “a feeling of transcending one’s everyday physical and mortal bounds to sense a deeper reality.”)

What must be noted about all of these master concepts is that they were articulated, developed, and promulgated primarily by scholars in the humanities, employing the traditional methods of humanistic learning. (Even Kurzweil, with his pronounced scientistic bent, borrows the language of his aspirations — especially the language of “transcendence” — from humanistic study.) The notion that any of these developments renders humanistic study obsolete is therefore odd if not absurd — as though the the humanities exist only to erase themselves, like a purely intellectual version of Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine, whose only function is, once it's turned on, to turn itself off.

But there is another and better way to tell this story.

It is noteworthy that, according to the standard narrative of the emergence of modernity, the idea of Man was made possible by the employment of a sophisticated set of philological tools in a passionate quest to understand the alien and recover the lost. The early humanists read the classical writers not as people exactly like them — indeed, what made the classical writers different was precisely what made them appealing as guides and models — but nevertheless as people, people from whom we can learn because there is a common human lifeworld and a set of shared experiences. The tools and methods of the humanities, and more important the very spirit of the humanities, collaborate to reveal Burke’s “unending conversation”: the materials of my own drama arise only through my dialogical encounter with others, those from the past whose voices I can discover and those from the future whose voices I imagine. Discovery and imagination are, then, the twin engines of humanistic learning, humanistic aspiration. In was in just this spirit that, near the end of his long life, the Russian polymath Mikhail Bakhtin wrote in a notebook,

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future).... At any moment in the development of the dialogue there are immense, boundless masses of forgotten contextual meanings, but at certain moments of the dialogue’s subsequent development along the way they are recalled and invigorated in new form (in a new context). Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival.

The idea that underlies Bakhtin’s hopefulness, that makes discovery and imagination essential to the work of the humanities, is, in brief, Terence’s famous statement, clichéd though it may have become: Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto. To say that nothing human is alien to me is not to say that everything human is fully accessible to me, fully comprehensible; it is not to erase or even to minimize cultural, racial, or sexual difference; but it is to say that nothing human stands wholly outside my ability to comprehend — if I am willing to work, in a disciplined and informed way, at the comprehending. Terence’s sentence is best taken not as a claim of achievement but as an essential aspiration; and it is the distinctive gift of the humanities to make that aspiration possible.

It is in this spirit that those claims that, as we have noted, emerged from humanistic learning, must be evaluated: that our age is postmodern, posthuman, postsecular. All the resources and practices of the humanities — reflective and critical, inquiring and skeptical, methodologically patient and inexplicably intuitive — should be brought to bear on these claims, and not with ironic detachment, but with the earnest conviction that our answers matter: they are, like those master concepts themselves, both diagnostic and prescriptive: they matter equally for our understanding of the past and our anticipating of the future.


  • Maybe, then, this is the *real* crisis of the humanities, that we have bought into the notion that our divisions go so deep that mutual understanding, never mind mutual agreement, is impossible and so all that is left are concatenations of power. This is where identity claims can be so corrosive in their assertion of something that is me (or maybe "us") that is not, and is opposed to, "you." What began and perhaps still is in some places, an attempt to widen our understanding of others beyond traditional boundaries takes us, through the cunningness of sin we might say, into our armed and suspicious camps, each trying to take over the faculty hiring committee...

  • nice

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