Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism

At long last, BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory, "Premodern to Modern Humanisms" (vol. 37, no. 2) is winding its way to press, for publication later this summer. The Introduction to that issue, "A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism," co-authored by myself and Christine Neufeld, represents a more full elaboration of BABEL's mission, which I sketched out more haphazardly this past spring in my "Notes Toward an Enamored Medieval Studies." This "confession," as it were, has been tortuous and difficult to write, but I honestly do not know how we could have arrived at it without the help of the commentators on this blog, especially JJC, Mary Kate Hurley, Nicola Masciandoro, N50, Michael O’Rourke, Dan Remein, srj, Karl Steel, and Michael Uebel. There is a special dedication to all of you in the Journal. I am appending here the table of contents as well as the opening of the Introduction, along with links that will take you to the full essay, as well as to the opening remarks of each individual essay in the issue. Obviously, any further comments and criticisms will help BABEL immensely in its perpetual self-fashioning.

Table of Contents

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism
Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld

A Medieval Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism
Michael E. Moore

A New Species of Humanities: The Marvelous Progeny of Humanism and Postmodern Theory
Doryjane Birrer

Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Present
Myra J. Seaman

Mourning Rights: Beowulf, the Iliad, and the War in Iraq
Robin Norris

Who Cares? Novel Reading, Narrative Attachment Disorder, and the Case of The Old Curiosity Shop
Maria K. Bachman

B-Students
Michael Uebel

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism

Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld

“To dwell in the ruins of the University is to try to do what we can, while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge . . . . [and] resources liberated by the opening up of disciplinary space, be it under the rubric of the humanities or of Cultural Studies, should be channeled into supporting short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research (to speak in familiar terms) which would be abandoned after a certain period, whatever their success.”
—Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (176)

“This will no doubt be like a profession of faith: the profession of faith of a professor who would act as if he were nevertheless asking your permission to be unfaithful or a traitor to his habitual practice.”
—Jacques Derrida, “The University Without Condition” (Without Alibi 202)

In his important book The University in Ruins, published two years after his untimely death in 1994, Bill Readings argued that, partly due to a certain state of affairs which he termed both “Americanization” and “globalization,” whereby “the rule of the cash nexus” has replaced “the notion of national identity as a determinant in all aspects of social life,” the University has become a “transnational bureaucratic corporation” and “the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured” (3). Further, the University “is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture,” and as a result, “the grand narrative of the University, centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning subject, is no longer available to us” (3, 9). Ultimately, the University is “a ruined institution, one that lost its historical raison d’etre,” but which nevertheless “opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication” (19, 20). This is a space, moreover, where the University “becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question” (20).

Although Readings’ argument in The University in Ruins has been subject to carefully considered counter-critique, it remains today, we would argue, a powerful spur to thought and action for those working within the academy who are concerned with the future of humanistic teaching and scholarship. One could say, as we do, that Readings’ emphasis on (and hope for) the University as “one site among others where the question of being-together is raised” is an emphasis (and hope) that is under a certain pressure from work within the humanities, social sciences, and sciences on posthumanism, post-individual personhood, and even, post-histoire. For before we can even begin to raise the question of being-together we must first raise the question of the being that could find or wish itself with others, and to what end? In her classical defense of a reform in liberal education that would emphasize global citizenship and a deep sensitivity to and embrace of human diversity, Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum argues that becoming an educated citizen means, in addition to “mastering techniques of reason,” also “learning how to be a human being capable of love and imagination” (14). But how can this singular human being to whom Nussbaum refers situate herself in a world where, as the philosopher of religion John Caputo writes, “one has lost one’s faith in grand r├ęcits,” and “[b]eing, presence, ouisa, the transcendental signified, History, Man—the list goes on—have all become dreams?” (6). For Caputo, “we are in a fix, except that even to say ‘we’ is to get into a still deeper fix. We are in the fix that cannot say ‘we’,” and yet, “the obligation of me to you and of both of us to others . . . . is all around us, on every side, constantly tugging at our sleeves, calling upon us for a response” (6).

For those of us who work within the humanities in the public (or private) university setting, the question of obligation can weigh heavily—as teachers, as scholars speaking to specialized audiences, and as public intellectuals. Although it is possible to slip so far into one’s own highly specialized and arcane area of research that nothing else seems to matter much, and “effective outcomes” or material results can often be, with good reason, beside the point, Jacob Marley’s reproachful lament to Ebeneezer Scrooge that “the world should have been my business” is never too far removed from our thoughts. Indeed, we would agree with John McGowan that,

The term “public intellectual” is redundant. There is—and can be—no such thing as a private intellectual. An intellectual is someone who, by way of words and arguments, aims to influence others. Like Diogenes in search of an honest man, the intellectual is always in search of a public, an audience. (47)

But how can we effectively communicate our work and thought to a public that is made up of so many diverse and competing pluralities, and when, as the political theorist William Connolly writes, the Kantian idea of regulative reason “embraces a profoundly contestable metaphysic during a time in which the global variety of religious/metaphysical perspectives is both visible and palpable” (196)? And what would it mean to communicate our ideas, effectively, to even one person when, if certain robotics and artificial intelligence scientists such as Rodney Brooks and Hans Moravec are right, the days of the human person are numbered? Or, if philosophers of science such as Nick Bostrom, who is the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, are right and the end of the human person, as currently designed, is devoutly to be wished? As Bostrom himself puts it, “it could be good for most human beings to become posthuman” (24), by which he means, to become “humans” who, through the aid of various technologies, have increased intellectual and physical capacities, never age, and never die. And if this were to actually happen, it would present a profound challenge to cultural theorists and public intellectuals such as Terry Eagleton, who believe that it is “our perishing, not our bestowals of meaning, which is necessary” to understanding our “creaturely nature” and the world in which we live (163).

Go here to read the entire essay.

Go here to read the opening remarks of each individual contributor's essay.

8 comments:

Karl Steel said...

What a thrilling project!

My hesitations have to do not with your work, EJ, but with that of Readings and Nussbaum, at least as they appear here.

I wonder, first, about the 'University in Ruins,' where I (unfairly?) slot in 'crisis' for 'ruins.' I think I've expressed here before my suspicion of the crisis model of history: Chaucer and the crisis of late 14th-century legitimacy, and so forth. Does Reading recognize that there's a permanent state of evershifting crises? That the moment for revolution or collapse is always present? That discourses and institutions (e.g., of the university, of faith, of the human person itself) do not follow the narrative of rise, consolidation/production, and decline, i.e., 'straight time,' but rather are always, at least in some way, in crisis? Recognizing this (or, okay, arguing for this) may not necessarily change how we view the present configuration of the university (in whichever present and whichever university we privilege in our imagination); but, by disabusing us of any notions of the stability of the past, it might give us hope in the present. Or scare us all the more.

It's my habit as a medievalist to trapdoor people. For example, we take the "no longer" of this statement--“the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured”--and look at discourses of the University in France, Mexico, and the US in 1968. Or, for that matter, look at the changes in the university away from amateur gentleman education in the 18-19th centuries. We might also look at the place of humanism in post-Sputnik American universities.

Second, I can't held but seize on Nussbaum's link of mastery and Reason, to think in terms of the educated elite (virtually a pleonasm) and global capitalism. I remember reading Nussbaum years ago in which her argument for a cosmopolitan education finally seemed to be aimed at shaping a good ambassador for American business in China: dubious.

None of this should be taken as a critique of your work or project, Eileen! Of course not! I'm thrilled to death by your project.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Wow. I am ultra psyched to read the full volume. Thank you Eileen for pushing so many real questions.

To one that you pose about effective communication to the public ("But how can we effectively communicate our work and thought to a public that is made up of so many diverse and competing pluralities, and when, as the political theorist William Connolly writes, the Kantian idea of regulative reason “embraces a profoundly contestable metaphysic during a time in which the global variety of religious/metaphysical perspectives is both visible and palpable” (196)?") I would add that this takes beginning, as it only ever can, inter nos, between friends, when academic professional discourse becomes also and already public discourse to itself. This has very much to do I think with the spirit of returning to the real, the actual, the now that informs the BABEL project(s) -- an overcoming, via an anti-bourgeois (or hyper-bourgois!, ala Agamben's whatever being) procedure of understanding the self as question, of the mutual bracketing off of subject and object that intellectual production entails.

M Ubel said...

Nicola has put things nicely. Fuck it, if I didn't read two stunning books after I wrote my essay: Anderson's 1973 Politics and the New Humanism and Glasser's 1965 Reality Therapy. Oh, and the recent book Szasz Under Fire.

What's my point? Simply that the return to the real, the actual, the now that nicola identifies is precisely a spirit I try to capture in the holistic thinking of marine biology in the 40s and Gestalt theory/therapy at the same time, and into the 50s and 60s with Maslow, Rogers, and company.

I'll have to write another essay now.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl--

I'm not sure I would slot Readings and his book into the "crisis" discourse mode. I cannot presume to know if you have or have not read all of "The University in Ruins" [those who know me, here and elsewhere, I think know by now that the book has become a kind of spiritual touchstone for me and for BABEL more generally], but Readings really does not, in my mind, enage in the kind of "crisis"-speak you refer to. Sure, sure, sure, he makes certain "pronouncements" about the contemporary university as a kind of transnational-capitalistic-beaurocratic institution that don't completely hold water [Dominick LaCapra's "Critical Inqiry" essay, "The University in Ruins?", which we cite in our Introduction--endnote #1, is an important counter-critique of Readings' argument in this regard--and thanks to Christine N. for insisting we include this!], BUT . . . . I think what Readings is more after with his *image* of the University [capital "U"] in "ruins" is to get us to reflect on how all the grand ideas we have had, historically, about what the "University" is [an authorizer of national culture, let's say, or the producer of rational "citizens"] were never really, palpably "real," nor can they be now, under the wane of the nation-state, the rise and force of transnational capital, the end of national Culture [capital "C"], the dissolution of the liberal human subject, etc. The ultimate aim of the book, and what makes it SO important, in my mind, is the way it pushes us to see that "culural studies," so-called, is not an adequate substitute for "literary studies," so-called, since we have not yet adequately determined why "culture" should matter at all, and how, and for whom? [This gets partly to the heart of so much of what Michael U. has been arguing on this blog.] But even further, he urges us to completely re-think what we think we mean when we talk about and practice inter-disciplinarity [again, Michael U.'s various urgings come to mind]: in other words, we have to first ask what it would mean to place certain "thoughts" alongside certain other "thoughts," without letting that practice/habit of "thinking together" solidify into a too-habitual cross-discipinary "discipline," which would then become authoritarian and threatening to the development of *real* academic community, when we understand community, again, as "singular" persons coming together without presupposed notions about what, precisely, constitutes the parameters of that "coming together." We have to be willing to commit resources, again, as Readings argues, to short-term collaborative projects, regardless of specific "outcomes" that would pre-determine their parameters of scope, modes of inquiry, etc.

Readings' books is ultimately a call to: a) reflect on the fact that whatever you think the University was/is [capital "U"], it never really was/is, and b) gather together within the broken bits and pieces of those historical notions, without regard for pre-established boundaries and purviews, and raise the question "together?" together. It's ultimately a profound meditation on the unique space--public, social, cultural, intellectual, etc.--that the university creates and the radical thinking it could allow for [in a way that no other space can allow for]--in this sense, Readings' university, like Derrida's, would be a critical site of resistance, perhaps *the* critical site, against oppression and un-truths of all sorts.

As to Nussbaum, if you read the last chapter of William Connolly's "Neuropolitics," ["Democracy and Time," I think], he launches a pretty smashing critique of Nussbaum's arguments in "Cultivating Humanity," that you might want to read. Having said that, I have a kind of love relationship with Nussbaum. She is a huge fighter for social justice, and one who moves way beyond the setting of the University to accomplish her aims as a philosopher and public intellectual [just look at the work she did with Amartyana Sen on the genocide in Gujarat, India--unbelieveable]. I admire her fiercely for this. She is, of course, a classical humanist in every sense of the word [and also a Whitmanesque neo-liberal], and it is easy to knock over, or down, some of the "humanisms" or "human subjects" that she constructs in the course of her advocacy for human rights, women's rights, a humanist education, etc., but if you look very closely at how she actually lives her life and on whose behalf she conducts her research, writing, and teaching, she is impeccably unimpeachable in my mind. The very "radical pluralism" that Connolly and others believe is glossed over or neglected in her work is, in fact, there--it's just that the older languages of classical humanism that she often invokes make her an easy target for us "post-humanists."

Nicola--thank you so much for highlighting BABEL's desire to commit to an

"overcoming, via an anti-bourgeois (or hyper-bourgois!, ala Agamben's whatever being) procedure of understanding the self as question, of the mutual bracketing off of subject and object that intellectual production entails."

Right on. Exactly.

Michael U.--keep reading and throwing those citations at us. And: how would you like to contribute a chapter to the next BABEL book, "Fragments Toward a History of a Vanishing Humanism"?

Karl Steel said...

Eileen, haven't read the University in Ruins. Presume away! I like the way you present this material,

...were never really, palpably "real," nor can they be now, under the wane of the nation-state, the rise and force of transnational capital, the end of national Culture

Which 'national Culture' is of course a nostalgic fantasy and, as such, intimately related to just this point: we have not yet adequately determined why "culture" should matter at all, and how, and for whom?

And thank you for contextualizing Nussbaum. You're right of course that my reluctance to read her because of what little I've so far should be tempered by her good deeds, her quest for justice, or however we want to think this. Would you say her, er, real world work is political or humanitarian (i.e., transformational or charitable)?

Eileen Joy said...

Karl, I would describe Nussbaum's work, at least within the two terms you describe, as political/transformational, in the best senses of those terms. You might, or might not know, that her area of specialty is the law, and she has taught important courses to law students at the University of Chicago on the intersections between the law, emotions [including disgust and shame], classical philosophy, democracy, and literature. Her work in India, especially, has nothing to do with "charity" and everything to do with transformational, feminist politics.

dan remein said...

as Nicola's comment has been pointed to, let me do the same:

"overcoming, via an anti-bourgeois (or hyper-bourgois!, ala Agamben's whatever being) procedure of understanding the self as question, of the mutual bracketing off of subject and object that intellectual production entails"

yes. this is why, one of the many "exactly why's" that I am so glad to have been pointed to in the Middle and glad to have been a part of the dicussions even tangentialy related to this project. The blog especially allow for a kink of communal "work" whose bounaries of production are not the self as question producer and the braketed product. the formulation is one of the rhizome, yes, but also one that risks not leaving much record of itself--who knows then some big lawsuit will shut down blogspot without a paper trail for us to keep? it really is a place with a wish for a community and a community of writing without reserve.

Eileen Joy said...

Dan R.--I really like your description of the blog as aiming for [as it does not necessarily always accomplish this] a "community of writing without reserve," especially if, by "without reserve," we mean without caution, without fear, without hesitation-toward-the-other, without holding back on account of professional anxieties, without attack for the sake of attack, without ego, without predetermination of what can and cannot be thought/said [while also being careful to consider the feelings of others who are not straw men but real persons], etc. Thanks for saying what you did. We are so happy, too, to have a commentator such as yourself who is so open and generous and poetic and smart in his thinking.