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December 2, 2006

BABELpast Addendum 3

After looking through the papers presented at several of our “premodern to modern humanisms” panels [see below], Jeffrey J. Cohen asked me, “do you see an emergent set of unified or semi-unified questions being posed about humanisms at this date? I can tell . . . 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.” I responded this way:

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 . . . 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 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]. So, first, create a kind of intellectual chaos around the terms, then look 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, a new discipline, a new university.

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 to the future [a future, nevertheless that does not neglect the past].

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 and queer thought and “new science”] 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 [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 certain scientists 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?].

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