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July 6, 2005

The History: Part I

The first spark of the fire of the BABEL Working Group was lit at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association in San Diego, California (2003) when Eileen Joy was wandering through the book exhibits and stumbled across the Winter 2003 edition of the journalCritical Inquiry, which featured the statements

Fridgehenge (Sante Fe, New Mexico)

presented by twenty-seven of North America’s finest scholars of criticism and theory atCritical Inquiry‘s 11-12 April 2003 symposium (held in Chicago), which had been organized, in the words of W.J.T. Mitchell, “to discuss the future of the journal and of the interdisciplinary fields of criticism and theory that it addresses.” No academic papers were presented, only short statements that were submitted and circulated among the speakers weeks in advance of the symposium, so that the entire affair could be constructed as a critical conversation. The symposium was divided into two sessions: a public “town meeting” that was attended by approximately 550 people from the academic communities of Chicago and beyond, and the event was covered by major newspapers, including the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and a closed meeting of the board and editors, which was itself subdivided into sessions on theory, politics, and technology. In his original “Call for Statements,” Mitchell indicated that the journal was interested in creating a forum whereby the editors could “spend two days brainstorming about the possible, probable, and desirable futures of criticism and theory in the human sciences.” Further, Mitchell asked the following questions: “What transformations in research paradigms are on the horizon? How will technology change the transmission and production of knowledge? What will be the fate of the humanities, of literature, the arts, and philosophy, in what is widely hearlded as a posthuman age? How will the very notions of criticism and critique change in the epoch and in the current state of perpetual crisis and emergency? What will be the relation of the coming criticism to politics and public life?” Mitchell also provided five suggestions around which respondents could possibly frame their statements:

  1. It has been suggested that the great era of theory is now behind us and that we have now entered a period of timidity, backfilling, and (at best) empirical accumulation. True?
  2. It has been suggested that theory has now backed off from its earlier sociopolitical engagements and its sense of revolutionary possibility and has undergone a “therapeutic turn” to concerns with ethics, aesthetics, and care of the self, a turn of which Lacan is the major theoretical symptom. True?
  3. It has been suggested that a major challenge for the humanities in the coming century will be to determine the fate of literature and to secure some space for the aesthetic in the face of overwhelming forces of mass culture and commercial entertainment. True?
  4. It has been suggested that the rapid transformation in contemporary media (high-speed computing and the internet; the revolution in biotechnology; the latest mutations of speculative and finance capital) are producing new horizons for theoretical investigations in politics, science, the arts, and religion that go well beyond the resources of structuralism, poststructuralism, the “theory revolution” of the late twentieth century. True?
  5. Following on number 4, it has been suggested that criticism and theory to come may have to explore other media of dissemination besides those of the printed text, the scholarly article or monograph, or even language as such in its prosaic, discursive forms. What is likely to happen or ought to happen to the “arts of transmission” of knowledge in the coming century?

After the symposium, in his preface to the volume of Critical Inquiry

in which the symposium’s proceedings were published (v. 30, no. 2 [Winter 2003]), Mitchell commented on the fact that, at the time of the symposium (earlier that spring), the U.S. war on Iraq had just been launched, despite the massive public protests against it–national and international–which raised even more questions for Mitchell, such as, “What can criticism and theory do to counteract the forces of militarism, unilateralism, and the perpetual state of emergency that is now the explicit policy of the U.S. government? What good is intellectual work in the face of the deeply anti-intellectual ethos of American public life . . . . What can the relatively weak power of critical theory do in such a crisis? How can one take Edward Said’s advice and speak truth to power when power refuses to listen, when it actively suppresses and intimidates dissenters, when it systematically lies and exaggerates to mobilize popular support for its agenda, when it uses slogans like ‘war on terror’ to abrogate the civil liberties of its own citizens?” In short, in Mitchell’s mind, Critical Inquiry‘s symposium on the so-called “crisis of theory” was happening in “a moment of profound political anxiety.” Eileen felt that this special issue of

Critical Inquiry was nothing less than important, but she also wondered, where were the medievalists in this conversation? How could questions concerning the fate of the humanities, literary studies, philosophy, and even the “human person” be debated and ruminated without the medievalists (or without the early modernists and the classicists, for that matter–well, okay, Stanley Fish is kind of an early modernist, but . . .)? While Eileen has always been passionate about the ethico-politics of literary (and, cultural) studies, she is also mindful of the wisdom in Stanley Fish’s comment at the symposium that, “politics do not require our professional assistance; texts do.” Maybe literary criticism was never meant to be “revolutionary”; at the same time, hasn’t the realm of the aesthetic, historically, always been the refuge par excellence for wildly subversive gestures, and even, for the “playing” out of the possibilities of alternative pasts and futures? Is the aesthetic realm also not the site where history is registered in slow time? If we wanted a “history” of such notions, of such registers, we would need the medievalists, wouldn’t we? In fact, if even the question of history matters in this debate, don’t we need

the medievalists (or the premodernists more broadly)? Yeah, we do.

Figure 4Fridgehenge (Sante Fe, New Mexico)

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