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July 6, 2006

The History: Part 3, and Something Like a Mission Statement

Found artifacts from a late night at the Meantime Lounge

Picture, if you will, a late night at the Meantime Lounge in Asheville, North Carolina, some time in 2004, shortly after the MLA meeting in San Diego. Eileen Joy and Betsy McCormick are drinking, for no apparent purpose other than drinking’s sake, multiple “Mandinas,” a concoction of bourbon, Grand Marnier, and gee, we forget what else. It’s funny, but after a lot of liquor in a bar in a town where the ghosts of Black Mountain College are always hovering nearby, one begins to see things and have visions. With the kind of courage one often finds at the bottom of a bottle of whiskey, Eileen and Betsy began fomenting the idea of a scholarly collective that could provide a home for the kind of work we wanted to do in medieval studies–on that night in particular, that meant writing essays about surfing and Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Betsy) and about suicide terrorism and Beowulf (Eileen). But what else? How could we work on creating new venues–an online journal? conference sessions? a series of connected conference sessions around the world? an entirely new anti-conference conference? special symposia? a biennial scholarly retreat? a scholarly love-in? N.E.H.-sponsored faculty workshops? small print-run scholarly “novella” chapbooks? performance art-style “events”? experimental films?–for a medieval scholarship with a decidedly presentist- and cultural studies-type focus (heavily inspired by the Annalistes in France and their ideas regarding the “longue duree,” “whole histories,” heterogeneity, and the history of mentalities) and that is also intent on levelling traditional chronologies, “periods,” disciplinary boundaries, and temporalities? How could we also work to promote scholarly work that is political in nature, in the sense that Simon During, Stuart Hall, and other British cultural theorists have described under the rubric of “engaged cultural studies”– engaged, moreover, with public intellectual discourses already in progress? Finally, how could we have a collective that could act as a lever for a new discourse within the academy aimed at reformulating and redefining what we think we mean by “humanism” and “the humanities,” such that we could also advocate for the important role of humanities study in the post-historical, post-human, hell, post-everything university, and also in public life? We also desired to be able to undertake this venture, as well as engage in various collaborative activities, with scholars working in more modern humanities fields, as well as with artists, and also with scientists working in cutting-edge fields such as biotechnologoy, robotics, artificial life, particle physics, etc. It was (and is) our feeling that many of the debates currently ongoing between the modernists, and between the scientists, regarding such subjects as “the future of literary studies” or “the future of the human,” could benefit immeasurably from the “long” (or, “longer”) historical perspectives of premodern studies, and moreover, premodern studies could benefit by being, not merely poachers of contemporary critical thought, but one of its many co-agitators. Finally, how could we create a space where, following Bill Readings, “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” (The University in Ruins, p. 20). After much scribbling of all of this on Meantime Lounge cocktail napkins, BABEL was born. Well, kind of.

After many fits and starts and retreads, and the launching of two volumes of essays co-edited by founding BABEL members (The Postmodern Beowulf: A Critical Casebook and Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages), it was decided that we should have particular emphases (or pointed questions) which we would dedicate ourselves to over extended periods of time. After some debate and discussion we settled on the topics of corporality, affect, posthumanism(s), and biopolitics, to which we plan to devote ourselves for quite some time (possibly forever). Here’s why:

In recent years, there has been a growing body of discussion and literature on corporality and the so-called crisis of the category “human,” both in modern and medieval studies, and while medievalists have often taken their cues in this field of research from modern theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guttari, Judith Butler, Thomas Lacqueur, Michel Foucault, and the like, with the sole exception of what has become a kind of de riguer nod to the work of Peter Brown and Caroline Walker Bynum, modern theorists rarely turn to premodern studies for insights into questions revolving around what the sociologist Bryan S. Turner has called the “sociology of the body” and what many scholars are now terming “the turn to the body.” In fact, in The Hedgehog Review (the journal of the Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies at the University of Virginia), in a special issue devoted to “The Body and Being Human” (Summer 2001), Jeffrey D. Tatum indicates that “Interest in the interplay between body and society has a long history,” by which he means, it begins with thinkers like Marx, Engels, Weber, and Freud. Further, in the bibliography appended to Tatum’s essay that highlights the supposedly best and most important scholarly work devoted to the human body since the 1960s, not a single work from classical or medieval studies is included. And yet, in recent years there has been an explosion in medieval studies in work on corporality, “humanness,” and the sociology of the body, and it would be an immense undertaking to list all of the titles here. How, we asked ourselves, might “the turn to corporality” in premodern studies join “the turn to the posthuman” in more modern studies, in order to help modern ideas regarding the human body “turn” once again, toward “history,” and by implication, toward a deeper (if irregular) temporality? Much of the contemporary debates over “the posthuman turn” have mainly focused on the ways in which new biotechnologies and new findings in cognitive and neuro-sciences have complicated how we conceptualize and enact our “human” identities, and have also ushered in the language of “crisis” over the supposed destabilization of the category “human,” in its biological, social, and political aspects. [This same “posthuman turn” has also, in some science circles, led to the language of giddiness and elation over all the ways in which we–whatever “we” might be–might finally be able to escape or transcend the death-haunted “trap” of our corporal bodies.] Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has argued, provocatively, that the Middle Ages were already posthuman, for it was a period fascinated with composite and monstrous bodies, and with the transformations between human and inhuman, corporal and more abstract substances, and there are a multiplicity of medieval texts which demonstrate that, even in the Middle Ages, human identity was–“despite the best efforts of those who possess it to assert otherwise–unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous” (Medieval Identity Machines, p. xxiii). In addition to creating some new bridges for medievalists and scholars working in more modern fields to converse with each other about corporality and posthumanity, we also decided that we wanted to address one area that has been seriously “un-plumbed” in relation to all this: how the various discourses–within the humanities and the sciences–might ultimately impact upon how we define what we mean by “the humanities” and what we think “the humanities” is, or should, be for? Therefore, we formulated the following questions as jumping-off points for further discussion:

  • Can we have humanism, or the humanities, or human rights, without the human?
  • How does the concept (or, reality) of the posthuman impact the ways we develop our notions of humanism, both past and present?
  • How do the various historical traditions of humanism (classical, medieval, and early modern) productively and antagonistically intersect with more modern anti-humanisms?
  • In what ways might medieval and more modern studies, with respect to the vigorous debates over the value (or lack thereof) of the liberal humanities, form productive alliances across the Enlightenment divide?
  • What is the role of the individual, singular person in relation to concepts of humanism, past and present?
  • What is the role of language and literature in relation to being, body, and mind, past and present?
  • Is it true, as some have argued, that the individual (and a concomitant emphasis on phenomenological inwardness) is a product of modernity (or, at least, of the post-Enlightenment), or has the self, constructed in philosophy and other arts, always been “deep”?
  • How does the interplay between singular corporalities and social “bodies” affect our understanding of what it means to be human, both in the past and in the present?
  • What is the role of the Other (or more generally, alterity) in our conceptions of humanism and “being human,” past and present?
  • How might recent findings in cognitive science—such as, “The mind is inherently embodied,” “Thought is mainly unconscious,” and “Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged” (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh, pp. 3 and 4)—affect how we might re-think our university humanities curricula and teaching practices?
  • Can we have, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow advocated for in the 1960s, a “humanistic biology” which is not morally neutral or value free, and which seeks to make us “wiser, more virtuous, happier, more fulfilled” (“Toward a Humanistic Biology,” p. 20)?
  • If the definitive politics of our time (and likely in the foreseeable future as well) is biopolitics, how might premodern studies intervene into this politics, with the hope of securing a place for a radically liberal new or post-humanism within that politics?
  • Is humanism a philosophy, or set of ideas, or a historically-situated socio-critical practice, that has lost its raison d’etre, such that it is time for a new humanism or no humanism at all?
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