Monthly Archives: May 2010

rethinking the humanities

(Lisbon, Portugal) I am here for a conference on the humanities. A major question was whether they are “in crisis”–because of falling budgets and enrollments, or deep epistemological and cultural discontents, or technology and pop culture, or all of the above. My own talk was a precis of my book, Reforming the Humanities. Some highlights from the other speakers ….

In the course of his wide-ranging talk, David Damrosch interpreted several texts that happened to be hip-hop (or, in one case, “hip-pop”) videos by singers/entrepreneurs who have migrated across cultural lines, e.g., from Beirut to Paris to Montreal. In the 20th century, a particular conception prevailed of the humanities as purely textual, professional, and located within specific cultures. For example, English professors wrote sole-authored books about novels written by Anglophone authors. Even as they took opposite positions regarding interpretation and authorship, Jacques Derrida and Northrop Frye both wrote dense, unillustrated texts about other texts, for professional colleagues. The future, however, lies with mashups and multimedia and with artists and interpreters who create businesses or other organizations. That was also the case in our past. The typical condition of the arts and humanities is to mix up written text, image, and orality–and cultural products typically cross national lines. Humanists’ specific skills of interpretation and selection remain essential.

Antonio Souza Ribeira gave a penetrating talk about the role of the humanities, virtually free of jargon yet deeply informed by serious thinkers from Goethe to Habermas. My favorite quote (paraphrased): “A friend of mine, an engineering professor whom I have no reason to doubt is intelligent, said to me, ‘What a privilege to be paid to read novels!'” Prof. Souza’s argument: the role of the humanities is to challenge instrumental, means/ends rationality and the divisions among the economy, politics, and society/culture that cause people to think as this engineer does. The humanities have a “reconstructive” task, concerned with the present and the future and not merely understanding the past.

Richard Wolin gave an erudite but also passionate defense of a tradition that began with Renaissance humanism, matured with the Republic of Letters in the Enlightenment, and received a full theoretical justification with Kant. This tradition (as I would summarize it) involves developing moral autonomy, good judgment, and civic skills and ethics through the close and collaborative reading of challenging texts. Part of the reason for its decline–Wolin suggested, and I agree–is that humanists themselves doubt this tradition’s value. He specifically cited post-structuralism as an attack on the tradition from within.

As we spoke, apparently the budgets of Portuguese faculties of arts and letters were under review. There is a financial crisis today even if not a philosophical one.

in London

I am on a long journey: Boston -> Washington -> Boston -> London -> Lisbon, all within 48 hours. I had a layover at Heathrow that was long enough to allow me a quick trip to Paddington and then back to the airport. I walked a circuit of a few miles: Paddington to Notting Hill Gate, Hyde Park, South Kensington, Gloucester Road, Kensington High Street, Kensington Church Street, Bayswater Road, and back to Paddington.

I have spent about eight years in this city, including almost every summer from ages 0-20, plus five school years. Nostalgic by temperament, I am fond of London for quasi-objective reasons as well as strictly personal ones. Actually, it would be hard for anyone to deny the elegance of Kensington on a cloudless spring day. But I admire much more of the city than its wealthiest squares and mewses. London has been a polyglot entrepot since Chaucer’s day, when Lombards and Flemings were especially important residents, and it has become an amazingly multiracial and multicultural metropolis in the 21st century.

The underlying English culture is absorptive and adaptive. London changes faster than New York (the supposed capital of creative destruction) because both market and state have the power to reorganize this city in each generation. After just a few years away, all the retail chains seem new, people eat and drink different things everywhere, the transportation system has been sold, resold, and reconfigured, the slang is new, uniformed workers speak different languages (I heard lots of Polish and Spanish today), and whole new neighborhoods seem to have sprung up. Yet the bricks are still made of London Clay, which the Romans used here. Ladies still pull tartan shopping baskets home from Sainsbury’s. Stinging nettles still force their way between railroad tracks and garden sheds. The morning streets still smell of wet cement, curry, and beer.

Brad Rourke’s PACE paper on the executive branch and civic engagement

(Washington, DC) In March, courtesy of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE), I was able to meet with White House staff to discuss strategies for public engagement and civic renewal. The meeting was informed by a fine draft paper by Brad Rourke. Brad has revised and expanded the draft to produce “An Evolving Relationship: Executive Branch Approaches to Civic Engagement and Philanthropy.” I strongly recommend it as a historical and conceptual overview of efforts–nonpartisan, even though they started with presidential administrations from George H.W. Bush to Barack Obama–to enhance citizen engagement. The goal is for citizens to “do things for themselves–identifying and solving community problems, discussing and choosing between different possible solutions, making tradeoffs.” As Brad notes:

    Since the 1970’s, public life has become increasingly professionalized. Scholars have noted a tendency for some government initiatives to approach citizens as if government or other institutions are doing the problem-solving, and citizens are receiving the benefits of those solutions. From this standpoint, citizens can best provide ‘input,’ and are ultimately the “customers” of institutional actions, even actions by citizens’ organizations.

    However, a more citizen-centric view might be that government and other institutions best come into play in order to do those things citizens cannot do themselves.


    This approach to civic engagement is nascent. At the same time that there is a new energy behind collaboration and participation, there is also new energy behind more negative social forces. Partisanship and polarization are high. Rhetoric in public life is heated. Trust in institutions (not just government) is at all-time lows, as is trust in one another. … For those who care about civic engagement and participation, this is a time that holds both potential and risk.

Rasmussen recently surveyed a national sample and found: “44% believe volunteer activities and organizations are more likely than new government programs to bring about the change needed in the United States. Thirty-seven percent (37%) take the opposite view and say that new government programs and policies will bring about the needed change. ” That result could be taken as evidence of conservatism, but there is a long tradition of grassroots centrist and even leftist activism that makes the same assumption. Michelle Obama, at least year’s National Conference on Volunteering and Service, hammered away on the theme that positive change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. Brad’s paper is basically about efforts from the very top–the White House–to enable bottom-up change.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

    “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.”

Zadie Smith finished her first book, White Teeth, while she was an undergraduate. It’s much more than a prodigy’s tour de force; I think it’s a fine and lasting novel.

It is elaborately plotted. The events span the period 1857-1999 and create a complex and deliberate pattern, full of symmetries and recurrent patterns. The whole structure encompasses three extended families (Bangladeshi Muslim, West Indian/British, and Anglo-Jewish) plus numerous well-developed hangers-on. As an example of what geometers would call a “reflection symmetry,” the two Bangladeshi twin brothers grow up in the East and the West, each embracing the other’s hemisphere, and they both make love to the same woman on the same day, whose child could therefore be either one’s. As an example of a “rotational symmetry”: at one point, disgruntled teenagers from each family are living with the next. Guns are fired in parallel situations in 1857, 1945, and 1992.

This whole structure could be considered artificial and mannered–especially when everything comes together neatly in the denouement. Smith is interested in no less a matter than Fate, the sense that life is pre-plotted. This seems especially salient in the lives of immigrants from the former colonies. Their lives are symmetrical, recurrent. Fate is also an explicit topic in at least three cultures that Smith explores and counterposes: Islam, Christian fundamentalism, and molecular biology.

I am not as interested in Fate, but I love the elaborate structure for a different reason. As many have noted, Smith is a genuine genius at mimicking and sympathetically portraying diverse people. Who am I to say whether she can see the world like an 85-year-old Jamaican Jehovah’s Witness? But I can vouch for her precise evocation of a secular Jewish teenage boy with academic parents living in North London in the 1980s. I was there, and she’s got that demographic spot on. All the other characters–who range magnificently across continents, religions, generations, races, and classes–seem entirely plausible.

What happens when you create an artificial structure of events and portray it from myriad perspectives, sympathetically and without the imposition of your own voice? That is a liberal political achievement, because it respects individuality and difference and refuses to boss people around, even in the imagination. It is also an artistic achievement. “For me,” Nabokov wrote, “a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” Nabokov’s recipe is: curiosity, which makes you describe all kinds of people and objects; tenderness, which makes you love them all; plus aesthetic pleasure, which arises when the first two are achieved harmoniously and elegantly. Smith is an artist in the true Nabokovian sense.