We Must Speak What We Feel: Eros, Love, Regard, and the Humanities

King Lear Woodcut
Recently, I have been putting some thought into a book project I would like to work on [in its most preliminary stage of inception, I might add], partly inspired by my own reading in cognitive philosophy and also by work the BABEL Working Group has been doing on “humanism” [go here for information on that] but also heavily influenced by conversations that have unfolded on Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s blog, In The Middle, relative to the possible social value [or lack thereof] of humanistic studies [go here and here and here and here for some of that]. I recently submitted an application for a summer research fellowship that would allow me to spend two-thirds of summer 2007 undertaking the primary research and some of the writing of this book, and I would like to share here with the readers of this blog my very broadly drawn “project narrative.” I would, of course, appreciate any feedback, especially since–at present–I am only in the very early stages of conceptualizing the shape of this book and gathering & beginning to read through preliminary bibliographies. The title of the project is pilfered from the closing lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear, where Edgar laments, “The weight of this sad time, we must obey; / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. / The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never live so long nor see so much.”

We Must Speak What We Feel: Eros, Love, Regard and the Humanities

We Must Speak What We Feel: Eros, Love, Regard and the Humanities, originated in the collaborative project undertaken by the BABEL Working Group to create new venues for bringing together scholars working in the humanities and social sciences with researchers working in the more “hard” sciences in order to formulate new paradigms for humanistic study at the university level, and to also demonstrate the relevance of premodern studies to pressing contemporary issues and questions. Part of the impetus of this collaboration was my interest in two somewhat longstanding debates among two groups of thinkers and researchers that do not always converse with each other—humanists and scientists—over the future of literary and other aesthetic studies and the future of “the human.” It is my belief that there are many rich opportunities for the productive convergence of these two groups, and there is already some proximity and overlap in their respective intellectual concerns.

Scholars working in literary studies, for example, have been discussing how changes in technology will affect the transmission and production of humanistic knowledge, and they have also worried over the fate of literature and the arts in what has widely been heralded as a posthuman age. What, for instance, might be the role of the critical analysis of literature in helping readers (including students) to develop ethical selves when the very notion of a coherent “self” has been undermined, not only by postmodern philosophy, but also by recent discoveries in cognitive science that, while dismissing the notion that there is such a thing as a single, unified self, have also revealed the importance of narrative and metaphor-like structures in the brain? George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, for example, in their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999), write that the way we “normally conceptualize our inner lives is inconsistent with what we know scientifically about the nature of mind.” Further, “there is no single, unified notion of our inner lives. There is not one Subject-Self distinction, but many.” At the same time, however, “we conceptualize our inner lives via metaphor.” And Daniel C. Dennett, in Consciousness Explained (Boston, 1991), has written that, thanks to certain insights from neuroscience, we know that individuals do not possess a “single, definitive ‘stream of consciousness,’ because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where ‘it all comes together’ for the perusal of a Central Meaner,” although there are “multiple channels in which specialist circuits” create “fragmentary drafts of ‘narrative’.”

Furthermore, there is a growing body of scientists, led by John Brockman, co-founder of the scientific collective Edge and the editor of the essay collections The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York, 1995) and New Humanists: Science at the Edge (New York, 2003), who argue that it has become necessary for scientists, in Brockman’s words, to “take the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives.” They believe that traditional literary intellectuals have abdicated their responsibility to elucidate the “important” philosophical questions regarding human nature, mind and body, time, technology, and the like, and they feel that those working in fields such as biology, computer science, mathematics, and physics are better suited to address those questions. Not all in Brockman’s circle fully agree with him that science will provide the answers to the big questions historically tackled by scholars working within the humanities. Nicholas Humphrey, for instance, a theoretical psychologist and author of The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution (Oxford, 2002), has argued that scientific discoveries can not “be counted on, necessarily, to bring about a net increase in human happiness—either through what they reveal about the course of nature or through the tools they potentially give us with which to intervene in it. Many scientists . . . are deeply pessimistic about what science tells us about the way the world is headed. And, as a separate issue, many still have anxieties about the use to which scientific discoveries will be put—from weapons of mass destruction, to eugenics, to thought control.” There is room here, then, I would argue, for humanists and scientists to work productively together, regardless of Brockman’s pessimism that literary scholars, for example, have become too hermeneutically insular and culturally pessimistic.

Finally, there are the social scientists—scholars working in psychology, sociology, and political theory, especially—who have undertaken immense and important work on human behavior that, while it often makes great use of scientific research, rarely considers literary or other aesthetic studies to be of much practical use.

We Must Speak What We Feel stems, first, from a desire to address certain areas of tension and non-communication between literature scholars, social scientists, and other scientists relative to the project of what Brockman has called the “rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives,” and also to ruminate the possible applications of humanistic studies within the supposed posthuman future. Second, the project is directed to three separate, yet (as I see it) related areas of scholarship: [1] work in social theory on what Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim have termed the “non-linear, open-ended, highly ambivalent,” and precarious process of individualization in the late modern period, where the intelligibility of the individual self—and, as a result, the moral community—is at risk of losing its coherence; [2] work in psychoanalytic theory on love, compassion, attachment, and affective care, especially in relation to individual well-being; and [3] work in neuroscience, cognitive philosophy, and sociology on what Lakoff and Johnson have termed “embodied consciousness,” where reason “is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience”: the “same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason,” and these modes of reason are not “purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative,” as well as “emotionally engaged.”

This project is also a response to the work of the political theorist Jane Bennett in her book The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton, 2001), where she worries about what she calls “the image of modernity as disenchanted, that is to say, as a place of dearth and alienation (when compared to a golden age of community and cosmological coherency) or a place of reason, freedom, and control (when compared to a dark and confused premodernity).” For Bennett, “the question is not whether disenchantment is a regrettable or a progressive historical development. It is, rather, whether the very characterization of the world as disenchanted ignores and then discourages affective attachment to the world,” and this question is important, “because the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life.”

The second worry Bennett has is over “the image of ethics as a code to which one is obligated,” and therefore “the affective dimensions of ethics are drawn too lightly.” In Bennett’s opinion, the enactment of ethical aspirations “requires bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions.” Further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is the argument of Bennett’s book that the contemporary world does, indeed, “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.”

While Bennett looks at what she calls “sites of enchantment” in nature and culture—including video technologies, cross-species encounters, chaos theory, and commercial commodities—it is my purpose in this project to argue that literature, especially of the premodern period, is also a site of enchantment through which affective attachment to the world as well as the processes of disenchantment can be explored and analyzed, especially with an eye toward the cultivation of that “distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions” Bennett argues is so necessary for an ethical life. How might the study of premodern literatures play an important role in the cultivation of an affective, enamored ethical life in a world that is, for the modern individual, increasingly stamped with, in the words of Max Weber, “the imprint of meaninglessness”? Further, how might recent work in psychoanalysis and the cognitive sciences help those of us working in literary studies to draw upon the technologies of both emotional, embodied reasoning and of metaphor and story in our intellectual work, such that we might begin to bridge the gaps that often exist between the scientists and the humanists, and thereby formulate a “new humanism”? Finally, how might those of us working in premodern studies practice an enamored and affective scholarship that is attuned to pressing contemporary concerns and questions?

Although this project is, as I have stated, in its most infant stage, I have developed a preliminary sketch of a chapter outline. In addition to an Introduction to the project, there will be four chapters, two of which (on Sophocles’s Antigone and Shakespeare’s King Lear, respectively) will treat the themes of disembodiment and disenchantment, and the resulting negative socio-political consequences and individual psychic damage. The other two chapters (on the Old English saints’ legend, The Seven Sleepers, and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, respectively) will treat the themes of embodied reason, erotic attachment to the world, and the necessity of sites of enchantment for the development of an enamored and ethical life.

Any comments or suggestions for further reading would be most appreciated. I append a preliminary biography below.

Cheers, Eileen


Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2000)

—. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (Cambridge, 2004)

Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London, 1992)

Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences, trans. Patrick Camiller (London, 2002)

Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton, 2001)

J. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Vol 1: Attachment (London, 1969)

William E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis, 2002)

Thomas J. Csordas, ed., Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self (Cambridge, 1994)

Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness (New York, 1999)

—. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York, 1994)

Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston, 1991)

Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S. Turner, eds., The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory (London, 1991)

Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York, 1991)

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, 1990)

—. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, 1991)

Paul Gilbert, ed., Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy (London, 2005)

Nicholas Humphrey, The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution (Oxford, 2002)

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago, 1993)

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999)

Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, eds., Modernity and Identity (Oxford, 1992)

Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York, 1990)

—. Open-Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)

Joseph LeDoux, The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (New York, 2002)

Nikolas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (Cambridge, Mass., 1986)

Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, trans. Peter Heath (London, 1979)

Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)

Bryan S. Turner, The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory (London, 1996)

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Passion: An Essay on Personality (New York, 1984)

6 thoughts on “We Must Speak What We Feel: Eros, Love, Regard, and the Humanities

  1. This is a sidenote, but an interesting one when thinking about fragmentation and open-endedness. The line you’ve lifted from Lear is attributed variously to different characters depending on which version of the play you read; Shakespeare’s earlier “History of King Lear” has Albany speak the line while the later “Tragedy of King Lear” leaves it to Edgar. Editors and critics still argue over how the different attributions can change our readings of the end of the play.

  2. I’m glad it helped! Thinking about the various attributions seems particularly important when you’re considering the ways that textually incoherent or scattered selves impact a notion of the self outside of literature. Lear fits so well with the project you’re outlining, especially as scholars are currently confronting the ways in which its separate texts do not function as one (and thus there isn’t a single, coherent Lear) but as multiple artifacts.
    Could you expand more on Antigone’s link to the project? It’s a text I’m less familiar with, and I’m interested in what ways you might draw lines between it and Lear.

  3. Hello Miranda–again, thanks for the feedback. This project is truly in what I would call an incubation stage. I found out about a month ago that I will [thankfully] be receiving the summer research fellowship, so that I can spend part of this coming summer undertaking the prelimiary reading–mainly in cognitive philosophy, political theory, psychoanalysis, and sociology–that will help provide me with some kind of “ground” for thinking through the possible connections between emotional affect, reasoning, ethics, and attachment. I have only the vaguest of notions as of yet as to how I will work in the literary texts, although that is obviously a central part of this project, since I want to be able to argue that the study of literature could be “key” in developing “sites” of affective attachment leading toward the cultivation of an ethical self. “King Lear” and “Antigone” are two texts that I teach A LOT, and I see both of them as revolving around main figures [Lear and Antigone, respectively] who quite purposefully cut themselves off, affectively, from eros and the world. Lear demands love, but cannot invest it, and although Antigone faces the threat of execution in order to be able to properly bury her brother [supposedly, an act of filial love], she, in a sense, weds herself more to an abstract principle [love of the Gods. and even the idea of a “noble death”] than to the persons around her who truly love her [her sister and her fiance, for starters]. Both Lear and Antigone represent, to an extent, the tragedy of the person who withdraws from the polis for the sake of an idea that is completely devoid of what might be called “the human.” Well, just some random thoughts. Cheers, Eileen

  4. I’m interested in the possibililty that attachment to the world might be ‘hard-wired’. There’s a lyrical description of this in Eva Hoffman’s autobiography, Lost in Translation (1989). Hoffman describes the ‘wonder’ of ‘what you can make a paradise out of’:

    … I grew up in a lumpen apartment in Cracow, squeezed into three rudimentary rooms with four other people, surrounded by squabbles, dark political rumblings, memories of wartime suffering, and daily struggle for existence. And yet, when it came time to leave, I, too, felt I was being pushed out of the happy, safe enclosures of Eden.

    The outside world, for the as yet un-alienated Hoffman, is not really an ‘outside’ at all. Lying, aged four, in her bed in Crocow in 1949 in a half-conscious state, she describes her room, with echoes of John Donne, as ‘an everywhere’ which is ‘enough to fill me with a feeling of sufficiency because … well, just because I’m conscious, because the world exists and it flows so gently into my head’. Lauren Berlant in ‘Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture’ (2004) writes that to ‘talk about the senses is to involve oneself in the optimism of attachment, the sociability of persons across things, spaces, and practices’, which she argues ‘represents a turn to the human without resurrecting, necessarily, a metaphysical subject’. However, the human predisposition, evoked by Hoffman, to make a home of the world suggests that attachment might be more than a matter of optimism. Perhaps I shouldn’t do this (i.e., plug my work), but this is one of the things I talk about in a book coming out in the autumn of this year: Re-Humanising Shakespeare: Literary Humanism, Wisdom and Modernity. You might be interested. Good luck with your work.

  5. Andy–thanks so much for your thougtful reply to my project. You have hit exactly upon something that is of great interest to me: the idea that a certain kind of emotional affectivity, or emotional predisposition to vewing the world as enchanted, might be hard-wired. Jane Bennet’s book [which is really a work of political philosophy/ethics] focuses on how what she calls “sites of enchantment” [in the world], if properly attuned to, can create wonder for the individual who experiences them, and therefore also contribute to an affective attachment to the world which, in Bennet’s mind, is necessary for ethical development. I am definitely going to check out Hoffman’s and YOUR book; thanks again.

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