Monday, December 10, 2007

A Day Late and Somethin' Short: Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism

. . . as scholars and teachers we believe we are right to call what we do “humanistic” and what we teach “the humanities.” Are these still serviceable phrases, and if so in what way? How then may we view humanism as an activity in light of its past and probable future?
—Edward Said

Other than sneaking out of the house on Friday morning to get coffee and write my last post, I have been holed up in my dining room [see photograph below] since Wednesday evening forcing myself to finish the book proposal for BABEL's next volume, Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism, a volume of essays that brings together essays by eleven medievalists [including me, JJC, Karl, and other assorted ITM rogues and vagabonds], an early modernist, a Victorianist posing as an art historian of the paleolithic era, an Enlightenment era intellectual historian, a queer theorist, a fiction writer, a psychotherapist, and a biologist [it's a behemoth, by god]. I had promised myself [and others] that this would be finished the first week of November. Oops [but isn't that pretty tame, anyway, by the usual standards of academic procrastination, I mean, overextension?]. I am starting to feel psychotic [and seriously unwashed] but am thrilled to announce that I finished the hellish task today, circa 7:00 p.m. central standard time, and the results are here:

Book Proposal: Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanism

Here is a brief precis, but more [juicy] content, obviously, awaits you via the link above:
It is precisely to Cary Wolfe’s hope of a theoretical posthumanism that would pay better attention to the difference between historicity and an unreflective historicism, and to Katherine Hayles’s assertion that certain aspects of the posthuman can only ever be modern (or, driven by certain post-19th-century technologies), that our volume of essays, Fragments for a History of a Vanishing Humanisms, addresses itself. More specifically, we want to begin filling in what we believe has been a definitive lacunae, or gap, in posthumanist studies more generally: the absence of a theoretically rigorous longer or slower (premodern) historical perspective. Many of the contemporary discourses on posthumanism have mainly focused on the ways in which new findings in fields such as biotechnology, neuroscience, and computing have complicated how we believe we are enacting our human “selves,” ushering in the language of crisis over the supposed destabilization of the category “human” in its biological, social, and political aspects (the futurist-dystopic view). Or they have concentrated on a theoretical reform of a humanistic tradition of thought (from the Renaissance through modernity) believed to have produced, in Iain Chambers’ words, an oppressive “history of possessive subjectivism” (the self-critical philosophical view). Or, finally, in some circles (primarily scientific, but also cultural, studies) the same posthuman turn has led to a language of hope and elation over all of the ways in which we—whatever “we” might be—might finally be able to escape or somehow make less vulnerable or more joyful the death-haunted “trap” of our all-too-human bodies (the futurist-utopic view). But what is missing from most of these discourses, even when they claim to address the question of history, historicism, or historicity, are what we would call the incorporated dialogue of scholars who have a deep expertise in premodern studies (antiquity through the Middle Ages), for while “the past” is often invoked and (crudely) drawn in contemporary theory, it is rarely visited via the route of, or unsettled by, actual scholarship in premodern studies—scholarship, moreover, that in recent years has been equally concerned with issues of the human and the animal, self and subjectivity, cognition and affectivity, singularity and networks, corporality and embodiment, and in a theoretically sophisticated manner that also calls into question the “straight” teleologies and causal explanations of a traditional, or in Wolfe’s terms, an unreflective historicism.
In order to make sure I wouldn't leave the house [to drink wine at Erato or see Enchanted at the Tivoli Theater, etc.], I went to Blockbuster and rented the entire first season of Battlestar Galactica. I must confess that [and yes, I realize this is contrary to all the usual tendencies of medievalists], while I have always had a penchant for post-apocalytpic-type or technoscience-type narratives [such as Stephen King's The Stand or David Cronenberg's Existenz], that I have always always always abhorred any story or novel or movie that takes place on a spaceship in space. Seriously. I always hated Star Trek. Always. But so many people kept telling me how good Battlestar Galactica is, and I convinced myself that, since I was working on a prospectus for a book on posthumanism that, certainly, a much-lauded television series about the almost-end of the human world at the hand of intelligent machines who have taken on human form was apropos to my state of mind [and project]. But do you know what happens after watching, say, four or five straight hours of such a show for four nights in row? I see Cylons. Everywhere [those who watch the show will get this joke]. Happy holidays.


Eileen Joy said...

Eileen: this is an amazing project. However do you find the time to do all this?

Eileen Joy said...

Thank you for your comment. I *would* say drugs [specifically ecstasy] and unprotected sex, but that will get me in trouble and no one likes to hear that a profligate hedonist can also be productive on a professional level. So let me just say that two things have been really helpful to me in getting things done:

whiskey [which is legal] and trained hamsters

Anonymous said...

Wait -- did EJ just ask EJ about how she finds the time to get things done?


Karl Steel said...

no one likes to hear that a profligate hedonist can also be productive on a professional level

I do. I'd take it as an inspiration, especially right now, when I face a weekend of exam-marking.

I'm so pleased to be a part of this project. An honor (he gestures wildly, flinging his panache about, and falls off balance into the pile of hamsters)