Thursday, February 15, 2007

BABEL Meets the Journal of Narrative Theory

Just a sneak preview here of BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory [vol. 37.2, Summer 2007], edited by Eileen Joy and Christine Neufeld, and titled "Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project." As some already know, BABEL has been organizing panels at various conferences--some medieval, some not--to bring together medievalists with scholars working in other humanities fields [such as 20th-century or early modern literature], and also with artists [fiction writers and poets], social scientists, scientists [biologists, geologists--so far], in order to talk together about "humanisms" and the humanities, past, present, and future. This special issue of JNT is our first publication to come out of these discussions, and hopefully there will be more, as well as grant initiatives [in progress] that will assist us in bringing these discussions to bear somehow on general education curricular reforms. If you follow the link above, it will take you to the tabel of contents of the issue, plus brief abstracts for each essay. And in the meantime, our discussion continues at Kalamazoo this coming May [so mark your calendars!]:

Session #11: Premodern to Modern Humanisms (May 10, Thursday, 10:00 am)
  • Mary K. Ramsey (Fordham University), "Niobe's Tears: Mourning on the Margins of the Human"
  • Karl Steel (Columbia University), "How Delicious We Must Be: Cannibalism, Again"
  • LeAnne Teruya (San Jose State University/Department of Geology), "Mapping Humanism in the Age of G.P.S."
  • Timothy Spence (Hollins University), "Lyrics, Commentaries, and Communities of the Spirit: Humanistic Commentaries of Passion Against the Modern Self"
  • Kenneth P. Clarke (University College, Oxford University), "Chaucer's Tyrants and Humanisms"
  • Betsy McCormick (Mount San Antonio College), "Oh, the Humanity! Toward an Ethical Humanism"
  • RESPONDENT: Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (George Washington University)


Jeffrey Cohen said...

This looks great, Eileen. A tough question, I know, but as the person who has overseen so many of these panels, do you see an emergent set of unified or semi-unified questions being posed about humanisms at this date? I can tell from the abstracts of the JNT issue that much discussion revolves around ethics and responsibility (esp. social and educational). I'm wondering, though, if there has already come to light a core cluster that might be labeled "what's at stake"? Humanism and its futures is potentially so diffuse ...

Eileen Joy said...

Your question is, admittedly, a tough one for me, and there are several ways to approach it. The first is a kind of purposeful deferral of the question, because from the outset of these panels, and every time I am coaxing and cajoling people to do them, I always emphasize how important to me it is that the presenters feel completely free to ruminate the terms, singularly or in any combination, "human[s]," "humanism[s]," and "the humanities" in any possible [creative] way they can think of, with no restrictions on where they carry or how they figure their thought. The idea, on one level, is to leave all three terms open, not as statements of [historical/cultural] fact or reality, but as questions: human? humanism? humanities? For me, the BABEL project [at this stage, anyway] is to, again, pose these terms [and their various inter-relationships] as questions, without contingent framing provisos of any kind, and see what kind of provisional answers might be suggested by different sorts of humanities and non-humanities scholars, artists, and scientists. This is also partly why I we devised the title *working group*--partly pilfered from the scientific community, but also to say: the purpose of our organization is to always be *working* on the questions [sometimes I think of BABEL as a kind of perpetual question machine--but "working groups," in science anyway, also produce reports related to specific questions, such as, as one of our BABEL presenters shared with us: is it okay to graft human neurons onto primate brains?]. So, first, create a kind of intellectual chaos around the terms, *then* look, as you obviously already have, for certain emergent patterns of "what's at stake," upon which patterns we can start building more purposeful discourses aimed at reformulating a "new humanities." The project is utopic, on one level, but also hopes to become more practical as well [leading, hopefully, to, let's say, a new journal, a new conference, general education curriculum reform at certain institutions, a new discipline, a new university]. [Perhaps that's still utopic to some, but not to me.]

I would say that, for now, the matter of *deferring* the idea of a definitive answer to what might be called the current "problem" of the humanities [are they good for anything? and how?] is extremely important, because I believe the most productive intellectual discussion is only possible in a space without pre-defined "final" objectives--to ask the questions of "what does it mean to be human?", "what kind of a thing is humanism and what kind of work does it do in the world?", and "what/who are the humanities *for*?" as if the answers will always be multiple, endlessly multiplying, and productive of even more questions, is to situate ourselves in a space that is more about "becoming" than "being," which also constitutes, I would argue, a type of political commitment [is the university not, already, in some of its aspects, this type of place; in Bill Readings' words: "one site among others where the question of being-together is raised"?].

So, that is one answer to your question. But it would be dishonest [or disingenuous] of me to not admit to certain prejudices of my own regarding what might be "at stake" in these discussions, and for the BABEL project more generally. I am committed to the terms "human" and "humanism," and regardless of all the good reasons [mainly put forward in post-structuralist thought, a la Foucault's "death of Man"] for discarding the terms, or ideas, or conceptual worlds, I think we have to hang onto them and reformulate them, reinvest them with new, more beautiful [and ethical] energies. I think the humanities, in the words of fellow BABEL-er Betsy McCormick need to be "more humane." I think we are in dire need of a "new humanism" and a "new humanities" that would argue for the importance of a more radical and more capacious definition of what "human" means and can do in this world [and as a medievalist, who stands alongside other medievalists in this group, I believe that the texts of the Middle Ages, but also of the classical world, still have much wisdom to offer regarding what might be called "the fate of the human" in the future]. Because I worry that the scientists, a la John Brockman and his collaborators at, or a la Nick Bostrom and his collaborators at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, really *will* take up the "big" philosophical questions without our assistance, and will decide, without consulting us, that "the human" is something that doesn't need a body, or doesn't need language, or isn't ever singular, or can't possess will, and might even be a category of being devoutly to be wished *over*, I think humanities scholars need to pay more attention to the research and discussions among scientists and to also enter into more productive collaboration with them. Such is the case of the philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, recently profiled in "The New Yorker" [12 Feb. 2007], who have radically changed the way we think about the operations of the mind by paying attention to research in neuroscience, but who, nevertheless have the frightening idea [to me anyway] that language somehow stands in the way of truly understanding ourselves and our experience and wouldn't it be wonderful to live in a world where you didn't need language? And where would the humanities be in *that*? Do we really need the Churchlands to tell us how inadequate language is at conveying "reality"? We know that already. The more important question might be: why do we need it so much? And what "reality" do we prefer, and why, and how do we make that "reality" livable and maybe beautiful as well and accessible to all who desire to live there? These are some of my own concerns.

As to "core clusters" that have started, let's say, to just naturally appear in the course of our panel discussions, you are right to note ethics and responsibility--I would add to that, the importance of individual freedom and expression [and the impact of technology/new science on what it means to be an "individual"]; the importance of art & literature [and therefore, obviously, language] to defining/enacting the human; the importance of history in defining/memorializing the human; the transgressive possibilities inherent in the human, and how those transgressive possibilities help us to see how "human" can be redefined as something "open" and not "closed" [and how such has always been the case]; and the question of what might be called a human collectivity [what is the value, or peril, of being human-together?].

I fear my answer here is overly long-winded. These questions obsess me.

Anonymous said...

On 'be flippant' Friday - can i just ask why so many people I know from Columbia are obsessed with cannibalism. Is there anything I should know about the place before my next visit?


Eileen Joy said...

Yes, N50, when visiting Columbia University, you should be very, very careful. Make yourself as unattractive and unkempt as possible, so that you don't appear too "tasty."

RaeRae said...

and smelly don't forget the smelly.

Karl Steel said...

But without that attraction, we wouldn't be as human: or so I'm going to argue in May. Hence the "must" of my title.

I count two Columbia medievalists interested in anthropophagy (Heather Blurton and me). Do you know some others?

Marvelous answer, EJ.

N50 said...

EJ - how funny - but I'd find that all too easy in New York of all places. Smelly - balk at that - you got me there. And your name - raerae - makes me a little queasy too (its a bad pun for UK academics).

I do know of HB's work which partly prompted my flippancy - but, Karl, it was also the 'again-ness' of your own title made me wonder whether there is an epidemic of cannibalism spreading out of Columbia.

Karl Steel said...

The 'again' thing is pretty much a reference to the fact that there's been a surprising amount of work on cannibalism (let's call it anthropophagy: I wish I'd gone with that, instead, for my title) in the Middle Ages. The ME Richard Coer de Lion has inspired a lot of work on this topic, from Michael Uebel, Geraldine Heng, Nicola MacDonald, and probably one or two others that I'm forgetting right now. The again is also a call for a new (or at least another) approach to anthropophagy, a turn away from the standard, political reading of it. Without dismissing the political reading of anthropophagy--and why should I dismiss it?--I want to shoot for a reading of it that engages, as much as possible, human flesh on a non-metaphoric level by understanding it, simply (disingenuous "simply"!), as human flesh. Even with this approach, the flesh is still of course a metaphor (for the individual or species, rather than the political, self); but it's a metaphor much more directly engaged with the material being troped.

Whether or not this is an ethical project (looking back to EJ's comment), well, I don't know. It certainly foregrounds the importance of human embodiment in our necessarily narrative self-conception.

N50 said...

The tangential metaphor I was thinking of - but resisted being drawn into (choosing an entirely unrelated flippant comment instead) - was the ethics of humanist scholarship.

Most of us engage in a form of cannibalism in relation to each other's work - but remain trapped within an ethos of heroic individualism in claiming authorship of our ideas. This was partly why I so admired your generous acknowledgement of your teacher's influence on your work a couple of days ago.

EJ: What kind of mixed ethical message do we transmit to students? In our constant focus on the creativity of the heroic individual (the avoidance of plagiarism etc)- do we weaken their responsible engagement with a wider world (and not just in their intellectual development)?

Just a thought for a 'serious' Sunday.

Eileen Joy said...

N50--your question is eerily related to something I just posted on over at Acephalous [more on that in a bit]. I actually hate how much of a fracas is often created over the issue of plagiarism in the university classroom, and I often downplay its importance in my own classroom [no, I am not saying I encourage or allow students to plagiarise without penalty, only that I think there are worse sins]. I also try not to focus too much on the idea of the creativity of the heroic individual, and focus instead on the ways in which various factors/persons come together in places [historical, social, etc.] that are productive of interesting & provocative art and thought. Have you ever read Borges's short parable on Shakespeare, "Everything and Nothing" [included in "Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings"]? It's instructive on this point and informs my own ethos:

Borges begins by writing, of Shakespeare, "There was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one." Further, Borges writes: "while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur's admonition, and Juliet, who abhors the lark, and Macbeth who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man, who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words "I am not what I am." The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his." At the end of the parable, Borges figures this meeting between God and Shakespeare:

"History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him:'I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.' The voice of the Lord answered him from a whirlwind: 'Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.'"

Cool, huh? Well, that's my answer, for now, anyway. I would also just say here that part of my hope for BABEL is that it will encourage a new model of collaborative scholarship in which individual authorship of ideas is not as important as collective authorship.

Anonymous said...

Well I have eaten the vegetables (but not the duck) and drunk the wine, and I have sipped the whisky but avoided the chocolate tart. So you had better take the following comments in their appropriate context:

I would also just say here that part of my hope for BABEL is that it will encourage a new model of collaborative scholarship in which individual authorship of ideas is not as important as collective authorship.

And this is where it gets gendered - because in the humanities this is how women work. It is intellectually hugely rewarding and creative - but is the profession still dominated by the male machismo of the ego (even though it is a pretend ego)? We'll see ...

Eileen Joy said...

Yes, N50, I realize that what I have described can be viewed as what is understood by some as "women's work," and collective scholarship is often seen as possessing less value [hiring- and tenure- and reputation-wise] than the "monograph," which is seen as springing, fully-formed, from the scholar's masculine brow. We could try to de-genderize all this, though, and seek to bring together men, women, transgendered whoevers and whatevers, to do collective work that would, hopefully, be seen as "important"--let's say, have some kind of palpable influence that could be measured, and therefore respected. Yes, yes, yes--of course, this is partly a fantasy, but a girl's gotta dream, right?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow, thanks for that full answer to my query.

I figured that the absence of the predetermined frame was intentional, so that the a body of concerns and issues would emerge naturally and thinking wouldn't be constrained by parameters articulated in advance. It's kind of Bruno Latour-ish to do so: step back and map the agents and their interactions, bringing to the observation no preconceptions.

But of course Latour always does bring such preconceptions and frames. He is typically just as faux naive as I was being. Still, it is a VERY useful pose.

Eileen, these common worries, obsessions, and considerations seem to me to be the most important ones:
ethics and responsibility .. individual freedom and expression .. art & literature ... history ... ... how "human" can be redefined as something "open" and not "closed" .. what might be called a human collectivity [what is the value, or peril, of being human-together?].
I suppose for us medievalists it is the interrelation of history with these other points that is going to matter most. Maybe I would push it a little more and link what you said about the transgressive and the open back to literature and art. I wonder if the human isn't most visible where history as a closed system fails and art as an open and less temporal order burgeons?

Eileen Joy said...

JJC wrote:

"I wonder if the human isn't most visible where history as a closed system fails and art as an open and less temporal order burgeons?"

For now, I will just say: I couldn't agree more.

Anonymous said...

History as a closed system

Ever read Herodotus?