Ah, Bartleby! Ah, Humanities!

For more Liberations and Humanities in Crisis Revolution, see “Strangers on a TrainA chance encounter provides a lesson in complicity and the never-ending crisis in the humanities,” at Academe Online, by Cathy N. Davidson.

Photo to left is cover of Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, edited by Ihab Hassan. Wesleyan University Press, 1971.
See Richard Wasson review of Liberations in boundary 2, Duke University Press: Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1972), pp. 242-244. Duke University Press or JSTOR Stable URL

An Argument of Definition: A Definition of Argument; or, The Light Without the Light Within

Have you ever read something and thought, I am not alone – there’s someone else here on the island with me. Someone has been speaking to me, and for me; I just maybe have not been listening in the right places. Personal essays are “arguments”; they are not “creative non-fiction.” On the contrary, the research papers are “non-creative non-fiction.” Yet whenever we write, we create. Creative non-fiction is a misnomer. All the world is an argument. Who wants to read an impersonal essay? What is an impersonal essay? One written by a machine? A bureaucratic procedure bulletin? There is no such thing as objectivity; everything we say and do, our every utterance, the clothes we wear, our music, how we cut our hair, betrays our beliefs, assumptions, values.

The time is 8 in the morning. Let’s qualify that claim; it’s 8 in the morning somewhere. But I’m writing in the Web, the country where it’s always light out, or light in. In any case, the sun rose in the east quite early this morning, though I’ve no proof of that, not even empirical proof, since we’ve cloud cover again, and anyway I was asleep at the time, whatever time it was. I was awakened by my neighbor who is lately up at does, as e. e. cummings said, pounding away on the deck of the ark he’s building. I should qualify too that since we are north of the 45th parallel, it’s not quite accurate to say that the sun rose in the east. We’re almost to the summer solstice, when the sun here rises in the northeastern sky. Of course, if we were standing on the moon looking down, this idea of the rising sun would be a curious notion indeed.

All non-fiction is a fiction of a particular community arguing to explain itself to itself in an inexplicable world. You’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes, Beckett said, to note inherent chaos. Beckett wrote fiction, primarily, and his fiction was also an argument aimed at explaining the inexplicable. And he did a pretty good job of it, too. Here he is, at the beginning of his novel Molloy (1951) , explaining what it means to be a writer (or a student, perhaps):

“There’s this man who comes every week…He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money…When he comes for the fresh pages he brings back the previous week’s. They are marked with signs I don’t understand. Anyway I don’t read them. When I’ve done nothing he gives me nothing, he scolds me. Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know.”

Things are falling apart in the Humanities. But the Humanities have been in crisis ever since the 1970’s, and for a century before, as evidenced by Ihab Hassan’s anthology Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution (1971). Everyone is starting to wear their pants rolled. No one is certain which person to use anymore. No matter what we may be doing, at any given moment, Basho said, it has a bearing on our everlasting life. In his preface to Liberations, Hassan said, “For more than a century now, the Humanities have suffered from a certain piety which even Revolution does not escape. True liberations engage some deeper energy, quiddity, or humor of life.” What should we be doing at any given moment? This is a question only the Humanities can answer. Then again, it’s a question only the Humanities could ask.

How Do Professors Think? More Crisis in the Humanities

LiberationsAt the bottom of her n+1 review of Michele Lamont’s How Professors Think, Amanda Claybaugh laments that Lamont “fails” to answer the promise of her book’s title. Claybaugh appears to buy into the title’s assumption, that professors think differently than others. But why would professors think any differently than anyone else? Indeed, from the professor quotes offered in the review, they appear to think exactly like everyone else: “so sick [of hearing]”; “it’s hard to articulate”; “nothing is perfect”; “just still didn’t get it”; and the ubiquitous “[don’t] be an asshole.” 

Claybaugh reads in the field of English; Lamont, sociology. It’s assumed one’s discipline amounts to a special pair of spectacles, and only through the lenses of the discipline can one fully appreciate, or aspire to, or do at all. Specialty is the extreme license: “…disciplines make a strong case for themselves when they unify around a shared method….” And to the extent that “English is seen as having no method of its own,” it also has no discipline, and its “…proposals …are seen as wandering into territory claimed by other disciplines.” Blame it on the essay, on Montaigne, all that wandering, those long trials. One English professor advances that close reading is a method, but in an apparent lack of self-confidence worries “…whether historians might not ‘know how to do this better’ after all.” Too bad; she might have mentioned Louis Menand and his American Studies or his The Metaphysical Club, or Caleb Crain’s American Sympathy, examples of English folks wandering afield successfully.

Consider the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Montag, on the run and under the influence of the former English professor Faber, joins the radicals living outside the city, memorizing books. They become the book they digest, the ultimate specialist. That’s a cool ending, but for a professor, why wouldn’t, as Buckminster Fuller gives us, specialization lead to extinction?

In his preface to Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution, Ihab Hassan asserts the professors have climbed out of their boxes: “The discomforts of the academy are already too much in the public eye. Yet how many see, I wonder, that we now strike past the college administration and campus guard, past the curriculum, past scholarship itself, at an older idea of man? The famous drawing of Leonardo, arms spread and legs apart, giving the human measure to circle, square, and universe, no longer takes our breath away. A post-humanism is in the making. What will be its shape?” Alas, that was 1971; the revolution is now in crisis.

“For if the lingo gasped between kicksheets, however basically English, were to be preached from the mouths of wickerchurchwardens and metaphysicians in the row and advokaatoes, allvoyous, demivoyelles, languoaths, lesbiels, dentelles, gutterhowls and furtz, where would their practice be or where the human race itself were the Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion, however apically Volapucky, grunted and gromwelled, ichabod, habakuk, opanoff, uggamyg, hapaxle, gomenon, ppppfff, over country stiles, behind slated dwellinghouses, down blind lanes, or, when all the fruit fails, under some sacking left on a coarse cart?” (Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 116).

Where, indeed.