ANNOUNCEMENT: Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project, ed. Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld, special issue of Journal of Narrative Theory (vol. 37, no. 2/Summer 2007)
TABLE OF CONTENTS:
A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism (Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld)
An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism (Michael E. Moore)
A New Species of Humanities: The Marvelous Progeny of Humanism and Postmodern Theory (Doryjane Birrer)
Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Present (Myra J. Seaman)
Mourning Rights: Beowulf, the Iliad, and the War in Iraq (Robin Norris)
Who Cares? Novel Reading, Narrative Attachment Disorder, and the Case of The Old Curiosity Shop (Maria K. Bachman)
B(eing)-Students (Michael Uebel)
[For a preview of our special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory, which includes a link to a full-text version of the Introduction, "A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism," go here.]
Founded in 2004 as a loosely organized collective of scholars working in medieval literary and historical studies, the BABEL Working Group is devoted to creating new venues for bringing together scholars working in the humanities, especially in but not limited to classical and medieval studies, with social scientists and researchers working in the more “hard” sciences, in order to formulate new paradigms for humanistic study at the university level and to develop and advocate for a “new humanism” that would be theoretically rigorous, scientifically sound, technologically adept, and ethically capacious. BABEL represents, further, a collective desire on the part of a certain group of medievalists who want a more present-minded medieval studies but also a more historically-minded contemporary humanities.
Scholars working in literary studies have long been discussing how changes in technology will affect the transmission and production of humanistic knowledge, and have even been leaders in the digitization of manuscripts and archives of texts. They have also more recently begun to develop an impressive and growing body of scholarship on what is being called cognitive literary studies or cognitive linguistics, in which, as Mark Turner writes, the study of English is being “reframed” so that it can be seen “as inseparable from the discovery of mind, participating and even leading the way in that discovery, gaining new analytic instruments for its traditional work and developing new concepts of its role” (Reading Minds). Moreover, humanists cannot be accused of having neglected, in their scholarly reflection and writing, the newer sciences such as genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, psycho-pharmacology, robotics, bioinformatics, and the like—indeed, these sciences have increasingly become a serious preoccupation for critical theorists, literary scholars, and historians alike. And yet, at the same time, there is a growing body of scientists, led by John Brockman, co-founder of the scientific collective Edge and the editor of the essay collection New Humanists: Scientists at the Edge, who argue that it has become necessary for scientists and “other thinkers in the empirical world” to “take the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are” (Brockman, “The New Humanists”). In Brockman’s view, traditional humanities scholars are so exhaustively insular and hermeneutic that they have apparently lost sight of the “real world” and have abdicated their responsibility to elucidate the important philosophical questions regarding human nature, mind and body, identity, ontology, time, and the like. BABEL was formed partly to counter Brockman’s claim that “traditional humanities academicians . . . have so marginalized themselves that they are no longer within shouting distance of the action” (“The New Humanists”), but also to assert the relevance of medieval studies to scholars working in more modern humanistic fields for whom, in the words of Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger, “the postmodern has often been too easily proposed as a radical movement beyond a [medieval] history thought somehow to have come to an end” (“Introduction,” Queering the Middle Ages xiv). It is BABEL’s aim to demonstrate the important relevance of premodern studies to pressing contemporary questions and issues, especially those that circulate around the vexed terms, “human,” “humanity,” “humanism,” and “the humanities.”
In recent years, there has been a growing body of humanistic scholarship on corporality and the so-called crisis of the category “human,” both in modern and premodern studies, and while late antiquity and medieval studies scholars have often taken their cues in this field of research from modern theorists such as Foucault, Deleuze and Guttari, Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, Thomas Laqueur, Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz, and the like, with the sole exception of what has become a kind of de rigeur 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 termed “sociology of the body” and what many are now terming “the turn to the body.” In fact, in The Hedgehog Review, in a special issue devoted to “The Body and Being Human” (vol. 3, no. 2/Summer 2001), Jeffrey Tatum indicates that “[i]nterest 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 (126). 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 late antiquity and medieval studies in work on corporality, “humanness,” and the sociology of the body—so much so that it would be an immense undertaking to list all of the titles here. How, BABEL asks, might “the turn to the body” in medieval studies join “the turn to the posthuman” in more modern studies, as well as in the sciences and social sciences, in order to help contemporary ideas regarding the human body, and human person, benefit from a longer historical perspective? How, further, could we explore, together, the “traumas, exclusions, [and] violences enacted centuries ago” that “might still linger in contemporary identity formations,” and also see, with changed eyes, a past that “could be multiple and valuable enough to contain (and be contained within) alternative presents and futures” (Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Midcolonial,” in The Postcolonial Middle Ages 3)?
Much of the contemporary debates over posthumanism have mainly focused on the ways in which new biotechnologies and new findings in the cognitive sciences have complicated how we conceptualize and enact our human identities, ushering 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 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 is a wide variety 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 xxiii). With this idea in mind—of both a posthuman Middle Ages and a posthuman modernity, neither of which is entirely free of concepts, identities, and social forms that are both alive and dead at once, BABEL decided to formulate a set of questions to which we would address our collective efforts into an indeterminate future:
• 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” (Lakoff and Johnson 3, 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” (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?
It is with this last question, especially, with which BABEL could be said to be obsessed. There is no doubt that humanism—especially of the variety in which, in Iain Chambers’ words, “the human subject is considered sovereign, language [is] the transparent medium of its agency, and truth [is] the representation of its rationalism” (Culture After Humanism 2–3)—has a terrible reputation and has been responsible for some of the worst atrocities perpetrated in history (torture, cruel medical experimentation, campaigns of disenfranchisement of persons’ homes and possessions, apartheid, slavery, ethnic cleansing, gulags, genocide, etc.). Furthermore, we are aware that any attempt to recuperate humanism now may always come too late if, as Foucault supposes in the conclusion to The Order of Things, “man” has already been “erased,” like “a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (387). Nevertheless, it is BABEL’s hope that a new humanism could be formulated that would be perpetually subject to rigorously critical self-examinations as well as it would be vigilantly cared for and safeguarded. There are good reasons, we believe, for hanging on to the idea of the possibility of a recuperated and recuperative humanism in an age in which one of the chief industrial waste products is human and other living beings, “squatopolises” are becoming mega-cities, and secret economies such as human and human organ trafficking are thriving.
While we are fully aware that, historically, humanism and the human have a long and troubling history that implicates them in violent exclusions, as well as in deprivations and disenfranchisements of all sorts, we would also aver that humanism (of different philosophical varieties) has also been responsible for heroic acts of psychic and material sustenance, rescue and redemption, mutually-productive alliance and overcoming, and personal freedom. It is not a question of having some sort of scale that allows us to measure whether humanism has led to more atrocities than it has to social and other boons, but rather, of acknowledging that it has done both, in separate times and places, and simultaneously, such that in a particular street in a particular city at a particular point in time, in a room on the second story of a house, one so-called humanist was engaging in an act of cruelty underwritten and approved of in his philosophy, while in another room on the first floor of that same house, and from reading the same books, another so-called humanist was engaging in a radical, even illegal, act of kindness. And our job, as scholars working within inherited humanistic traditions we are reluctant to discard entirely, is to understand as well as we can this complex and complicated history of humanism and to decide: what is salvageable and what must be put away forever?
In this sense, BABEL desires what Martin Halliwell and Andy Mousley have termed a critical or “baggy” humanism that “takes the human to be an open-ended and mutable process” (Critical Humanisms 2). And like Halliwell and Mousley, we wish to develop a humanism that is “both a pluralistic and a self-critical tradition that folds in and over itself, provoking a series of questions and problems rather than necessarily providing consolation or edification for individuals when faced with intractable economic, political, and social pressures” (16). This is a humanism that also acknowledges, with Chambers, that “Being in the world does not add up, it never arrives at the complete picture, the conclusive verdict. There is always something more that exceeds the frame we desire to impose” (2).
Alongside this valuable insight, BABEL wishes, if even temporarily, to hang on to the terms “human,” “humanity,” and “humanism,” not because they are meaningful ideas or states of affairs in and of themselves (because their value is somehow, ipso facto, obvious), or because they adequately “frame” who we are and what we do, but because we believe we need these terms as always-open sites for continual explorations and forays into what we think we may be at any given moment. Biologically and historically speaking, and regardless of our abilities to enter into processes of “becoming posthuman” or “becoming inhuman” with and alongside others (human, animal, machine, or otherwise), ultimately, at some level, we are thus and not thus. Regardless of the names we give ourselves, or even of our capacities for transformation beyond ourselves, there must be a way to account for our difference that does not do violence to others and that could even enhance the possibilities for a greater share of happiness and well-being for a greater share of the living forms that together inhabit this world. We are thus and not thus. What is our given-ness, however minimal, the place from which we begin to go forth? What are the possibilities, partially determined by our given-ness, available to us? What, further, given our given-ness (for our being at all is a sort of gift), are our responsibilities as intellectuals, but also as humanists (how do we re-give)? It is to these questions, and with all the powers of pre- and postmodern critical thought and scientific understanding we can muster from whatever corners, that BABEL would like to see a new humanism, by whatever name, address itself.
As regards our more narrow purview—literature, history, philosophy, narrative and critical theory, and the arts—BABEL is especially concerned with developing a new, “baggy,” and critical humanism that would explore: 1) the significance (historical, socio-cultural, psychic, etc.) of individual freedom, expression, and affectivity; 2) the impact of technology and new sciences on what it means to be an individual or self; 3) the importance of art and literature (and therefore, obviously, language) to defining and enacting the human; 4) the importance of history in defining and re-membering the human; 5) the transformational possibilities inherent in the human, and how those transformational possibilities help us to see how the human can be redefined as something open and not closed (and how such has always been the case); and 6) the question of what might be called a human collectivity or human “join”: what is the value, or peril, of “being human”-together?