Statement from the Director

2017-18

“Moods of the (Extended) Moment”

 

matt_wickman

If one reads academic news media like The Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed—or, for that matter, The New York Times—one quickly ascertains that these aren’t the best of times for the humanities. Lending voice to that sentiment a few years ago, in 2014, the Modern Language Association made “Vulnerable Times” its theme for its large annual conference. In her presidential address at the convention, Marianne Hirsch of Columbia University acknowledged these sources of uncomfortable vulnerability in the humanities:

reduced funding and the alarming cost of a college degree to students; the drastic cutbacks in jobs, especially tenure- track jobs, and the exploitation of part-time and non-tenure-track faculty members; the growing disparity between public and private institutions; fundamental changes in scholarly publishing and communications; the ways in which the humanities are instrumentalized for their utility and monetary value in the public sphere at every turn; the precarious situation of language departments, of languages, and of language itself in the era of globalization and “security”; the challenges to faculty governance at many institutions and the increasing threats from outside the academy to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.

BYU is an antidote to some of these concerns and fully symptomatic of others. The Church’s extraordinary financial support of BYU protects its students from many of the spiraling (and crushing) costs of higher education, and the university’s continuing commitments to the teaching of language exempt it from the threatened closure of language departments. However, and on the flip side, BYU stands at least partly guilty as charged for instrumentalizing the humanities for their monetary value, as our (very successful) Humanities Plus program attests. And faculty governance at BYU leaves something to be desired, as the “Faculty Advisory Committee,” or FAC, is far less powerful than the “faculty senate” model that prevails at most universities. BYU has its reasons, to be sure, for “selling” the humanities and for limiting the legislative power of its faculty. Those reasons would be the subjects of another essay, and to anticipate the line of argument I would take there, let’s just say that I support Humanities Plus and that I hardly feel exploited as a member of BYU’s faculty. (Perhaps this only underscores another of Hirsch’s points, namely that there is a “growing disparity between public and private institutions.”)

But for now, and just as a thought experiment, let’s take Hirsch’s observations at face value. Times are bleak in higher education. And BYU reflects that bleakness.

For Amanda Anderson, however, bleakness is a term that holds real promise. Anderson is presently Director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities and Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Humanities and English at Brown University. She is also the author of Bleak Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2016), a book with a big argument to make about the legacy of an important strand of modern thought. These days, liberalism is a word that inspires almost instant cringe, derided as it is by people on the political Left as well as the Right. That said, liberalism is, broadly speaking, a progressive philosophy to which virtually all modern people subscribe, irrespective of political affiliation. If you’re a conservative and you watch Fox News, for example, you clearly embrace the technological progress that has brought us television; likewise if you take prescription medication, have electricity in your home, etc. Or, if you contribute to a 401K, you clearly believe at least partly in the progress of markets. In our modern world, we’re all—necessarily—open to progress. The only questions, really, are how much and whose version of it.

Back to Anderson, then. Liberalism, she writes, particularly in its more conventional political guise, is “best understood as a philosophical and political project conceived in an acute awareness of the challenges and often bleak prospects confronting it.” And why do these prospects seem bleak? Because progress is foreboding as well as necessary, and it often forces us to confront contradictions between difficult moral choices and intractable social forces. Say you’re the owner of a factory and you can increase efficiency by designing robots to run your plant, but to implement that plan you’re forced to lay off a thousand workers. Or say you’re a loyal member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and you subscribe to the twelfth Article of Faith about “being subject” to rulers but are deeply offended by a mayor, a senator, a governor, or a president.

The history of liberalism, as Anderson discusses by way of nineteenth-century novels and twentieth-century theory, confronts these kinds of challenges—this bleakness—without taking easy solace either in utopian revolution or reactionary refusal. Each of those approaches essentially dismisses present challenges on their own terms, taking refuge in echo chambers. Most social and aesthetic theories in the humanities, she argues, are simplistically utopian; many public challenges to “elitist” university cultures, meanwhile, are dismissively conservative. For liberal philosophy, however, caught between these extremes, progress tends to be slow, tethered to rational argument, gradualist institutional reform, dedicated proceduralism—not exactly the stuff to satisfy short attention spans.

Anderson is the Annual Symposium guest of our BYU Humanities Center this year. Her book obviously has import for our current political sphere, given as it is, increasingly, to demagoguery, apathy toward civic institutions, impatience with the slow grind of history, and creeping contempt for those who think differently. But the book also has a lot to say for humanities educational principles (for that matter, LDS moral values) that preach virtues of informed argument, careful listening, deliberative judgment, appreciation of diversity (including diversity of opinion), and more. As Anderson summarizes, “the liberal tradition values the examined life in its many dimensions, including the rigorous scrutiny of principles, assumptions and belief systems; the questioning of authority and tradition; the dedication to argument, debate, and deliberative processes of legitimation and justification; and the commitment to openness and transparency.”

If that’s bleakness, we could all probably use a little more of it. This much I know: its opposite isn’t anything like happiness.

2016-17

“After Suspicion…”

Say what you will about his politics – although it’s probably best to say as little as possible – but Paul de Man was an extraordinary writer. And he formulated some of his most powerful sentences in his 1979 volume Allegories of Reading. “Faced with the truth of its nonexistence, the self” implicated in language “would be consumed as an insect is consumed by the flame that attracts it” (111). “[A]ll being, as the ground for entities, may be linguistically … a correlative of speech acts” (123). Or this one, a kind of summation of so much of his thought: “Rhetoric is a text in that it allows for two incompatible, mutually self-destructive points of view, and therefore puts an insurmountable obstacle in the way of any reading or understanding” (131).

De Man’s point is actually a familiar one in his critical archive. Texts operate simultaneously in mutually exclusive registers. They do things and they are things, and we either suspend our disbelief and allow ourselves to be transported by poems, narratives, legal contracts, news reports, and all the myriad forms through which we communicate – we either allow texts to do things, to move us – or else we step back and evaluate, analyze, and criticize the mechanisms through which such movement occurs. That is, we either find ourselves swept along by the force of language or else we reflect on the mechanisms of that force, and thereby break the textual spell. It is a product of our mortal condition that we cannot simultaneously feel and know the effects of language. And for that reason, language is never truthful. Or rather, it tells contradictory truths.

This grand peroration in de Man’s 1979 volume needed the force he summoned for it, for the idea he was articulating was not in itself worthy of much attention. I say this not only because de Man had (in books like Blindness and Insight) already been there and done that, but also because Paul Ricoeur, more than a decade earlier (in 1965), had published a major book, Freud and Philosophy, in which he characterized ideas like de Man’s as belonging to a deep-seated and, by that point, utterly conventional school of skepticism. Ricoeur called this body of work the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” and he argued that it emerged in the nineteenth century with Marx and Nietzsche before arriving at theoretical maturity with Freud’s concept of the unconscious.

Of course, this story is well known. And by this point, so is the story of what came “after” suspicion. Modes of reading and interpretation predicated on very different principles – reading for surface effects, or for whimsy, or for empathy, or for healing – have become widespread. This year’s Humanities Center theme was even the title of an excellent 2009 essay by Rita Felski. There, Felski writes of inculcating among her students a mode of interpretive attention based on “the willingness to be patient” in registering the effects of a particular text, “to describe rather than prescribe, to look carefully at rather than through appearances,” and to attend, in every way, to “the irreducible complexity of everyday structures of experience” that express themselves in literature. Texts do so much more than play games of truth and lie.

But that raises new grounds of suspicion, does it not? Because one of the driving motivators of the post-suspicious (or neo-credulous?) school of thought has been postsecular criticism – more specifically, the “return to religion,” to faith, to belief. And that’s problematic, argues Gregg Lambert, for “return statements” – to religion, to the text, to history, and myriad other iterations – have been common since Heidegger’s famous Kehre (his “turn”) in the 1930s. And such returns rarely (only) do what they say they’re doing.

Felski and Lambert are the guests this year for our Humanities Center Annual Symposium and Annual Lecture, respectively. Along with their visits, we will hold other events (around language, media, area studies, literature, and the religious imagination – yes, including the “return to religion”) that pose questions of whether the humanities actually have moved, or should move, beyond suspicion. And, if so, what does that mean several years after “After Suspicion,” now that humanists have had time to think and live otherwise – that is, to reflect on something other than, as de Man put it, the “insurmountable obstacle[s] in the way of any reading or understanding”?

2015-16

“The Work of Art”

In her book The Work of Art in the World, Doris Sommer tells a remarkable story about the transformation of Bogotá, Columbia, which in the early 1990s was the most dangerous city in Latin America. In 1994, the city elected a new mayor, Anatanas Mockus, and Mockus did partly as one would expect: he implemented a program designed to curb corruption and promote civic well-being. What’s interesting is how he did it. Instead of pouring money into law enforcement, Mockus turned over the city to artists. He deployed mimes to direct traffic; he dispatched painters to design stars on the road where pedestrians had died, bringing elegant attention to safety issues; he instituted a periodic “Women’s Night Out” and ordered the men to stay at home, thus partly returning to women a city whose violence had largely expelled them from the urban scene. Bogotá enjoyed a renaissance through these initiatives, and Sommers remarks that “[o]ne important lesson we learn from Mockus is that without pleasure, social reform and political pragmatism shrivel into short-lived, self-defeating pretensions.” But the reverse, of course, is also true: art has the power not only to change the perceptions of other artists and devoted aficionados, but also to exert a force on the public sphere.

This year, the Humanities Center brings the subject of the work of art in both private and public sphere into focus with its annual theme: “The Work of Art.” Our interest here is to explore the broad influence of the arts (that is, of literature, music, painting, cinema, photography, rhetoric, and more). As a reflection of this theme, one of the Center’s new research groups, an “applied humanities” consortium of faculty and students, is assisting people in Cambodia, a nation ravaged by genocide a generation ago, collect, preserve, and analyze family histories. The questions such histories raise are profound: What work do they perform? What is the role of the imagination in that work? How do we negotiate the permeable boundary between imagination and memory given not only the animation of the past, but also the gaps that have been blown into the historical record by the traumas of the past?

Our Annual Symposium and Annual Lecture will bring a different kind of attention to the work of art. Caroline Levine of the University of Madison-Wisconsin will talk with us about her book Forms, which makes the powerful case that the structuring principles one finds in a work of fiction—say, the technique of repetition, or binary opposition (e.g., protagonists and antagonists)—also order the world around us. If the kinds of networks that inform the “real world” also structure literature, then literary study becomes a template for recognizing, and perhaps reconciling, real world challenges. Then, later in the year, Nicholas Mirzoeff of New York University will speak to us about his innovative work on the ways art helps us reframe our perception of the life that surrounds us—a principle he puts to poignant effect in discussing the art, politics, and social phenomenon of the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

We hope these events, in concert with a busy slate of other Center activities, collectively underscore the work of art as, indeed, an important act of labor—as an instrument of public and political as well as a personal and spiritual significance.

2014-15

“Disappearance”

Disappearance is one of the great and enduring motifs of literature, though in narrative it rarely does what it says. Typically, it motivates something new to happen. Helen’s disappearance (in the form of her abduction by Paris) incited the Trojan War and inspired The Iliad. Moby Dick’s attack on Captain Ahab and subsequent disappearance beneath the waves drove a later crew of The Pequod, Ahab’s ship, on a quest of epic proportions. The disappearance of an epistle containing compromising information – a “Purloined Letter” – formed the basis of a story by Edgar Allan Poe that helped launch the genre of detective fiction.

But does the same hold true of disappearing languages? Does attenuation or even extinction at that foundational level inspire anything new? The work of the BYU Humanities Center’s Annual Lecturer this year, K. David Harrison of Swarthmore College, suggests that the answer may be yes, even if in some cases that is only a heightened consciousness of loss and a greater understanding of language as a vital, and mortal, organism. When we lose a language, Harrison argues, we lose ways of conceptualizing the world – we lose a part of our history, a part of ourselves.

Of course, literature and history also teach us that sometimes we desire loss and the power to forget. Indeed, some things haunt us because they will not disappear. It was King Hamlet’s return that inspired such famously agonizing soul-searching in his grieving, but emotionally paralyzed, son. It was the refusal of Bartleby, the scrivener first to work and then to vacate his work premises (informing his boss that he “would prefer not to”) that prompted its story’s narrator to reflect on the pathetic nature of the human condition. (“Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”) And it was the compulsive recurrence of harrowing symptoms in soldiers returning from the front lines of World War One that enabled Freud to formulate one of his most powerful ideas, the theory of trauma.

Today, the humanities are facing their own traumas of disappearance, and in some cases of things that refuse to disappear. Most everybody has heard of the “crisis in the humanities,” defined most simply as the partial disappearance of university funding from humanities budgets and of students from humanities classrooms. While the extent of these disappearances is easily exaggerated in some corners of the academic world, it is poignantly felt in others, and it is inciting widespread reflection on humanities practices.

The distinguished guest at another of our Center’s general events, the Annual Symposium, has become an important figure in this conversation surrounding reform. Eric Hayot, Professor of Comparative Literature at Penn State, is in many ways an expert thinker about novelty. His 2012 book On Literary Worlds analyzes aesthetic objects as world-creating (and -destroying) artifacts that compel us to rethink the ways we believe we know history. Elsewhere, Hayot has written critically about literary scholars’ ongoing allegiance to old ways of imagining literary periods and of academic publishing’s failure to provide a sufficient variety of formats for the exposition of idea. How might we rethink the humanities and adapt to the needs of our evolving society? Should universities rethink themselves?

Disappearance is a complex but fascinating subject. Eventually it too will disappear as our annual theme, but hopefully not without making us wiser about the traditions we in the humanities generate as well as those we study.

 

2013-14

“Innovation and the Humanities”

Innovation, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, denotes some alteration to an established order “by the introduction of new elements or forms.” But it’s interesting to reflect for a moment on what any “introduction of the new” entails. For instance, it implies a sense of history as well as novelty, of memory as well as imagination: one must be able to retain an image of what has passed if the innovation is to hold its allure. And yet, if innovation is not to remain perpetually mystifying to us, if we are to grasp the process by which “the new” happens, then we must also possess some ability to organize an innovative product or idea into transmissible form and then show ourselves capable of explaining the nature of the transformation. And it always helps, of course, to understand the cultural contexts in which new things may take root.

In short, the very idea of innovation involves the analysis of history, culture, language, and narrative. There is no innovation, therefore, without the humanities.

This fact bears mentioning because in recent years the concept of innovation has become most commonly associated with business and the sciences. Synonymous with entrepreneurship and often applied to new technologies, the specter of innovation even seems vaguely (and in some cases concretely) threatening to many humanists. “Disruptive innovation,” for example, has come to describe not only a natural law of the marketplace but also an approach to higher education that propounds, for example, massive open online courses (or MOOCs) as a way to trim labor and tuition costs at universities and, through that medium, to diminish the amount of face-to-face instruction that has long been the lifeblood of humanities teaching. One of the proponents of “big technology” in university instruction is Clayton M. Christensen, the father of the theory of disruptive innovation – and, it so happens, a graduate of BYU. 

Humanists frequently take issue with the entrepreneurial appropriation of the idea of innovation, chiding what they perceive as the naïve belief in technology and the corresponding subjection of educational institutions to crude corporate logic. But such a critique perhaps indicates myopia on both sides – on the part of those, certainly, who see all things as corporate, but also of those who forget that any innovation, even “disruptive innovation,” is a deeply humanistic concept. And by making innovation our Center’s theme this year, we are hoping to initiate a series of discussions that accentuate that fact and that remind humanists of the role they potentially play in shaping the discourse of innovation – and of the role their disciplines play in making innovation possible in the first place.

 

2012-13

“States of the Humanities: New Keywords”

In this inaugural year of BYU’s Humanities Center, it seems fitting that we should inquire into the state of the academic discipline the Center promotes. Where are the humanities now? For that matter, what are they now?

Perhaps these questions partly furnish their own answers. Inquiries into the state of the field have become habitual across the humanities, an academic reflex to situate the discipline relative to other fields as well as to its own past. Perhaps this impulse derives from a current GPS culture that obsesses over the shifting maps across which we move. Or perhaps it comes from a growing sense of endangerment to the humanities in an era of ever-mounting pressures on university budgets. But as always in the humanities, queries into the state of the profession are also questions about ourselves. Where are we now at this moment in the human conversation? And what do we think we are we becoming?

In a speech delivered to faculty a half-century ago, in 1962, BYU President Ernest L. Wilkinson spoke to the strange status of the human in an era defined by technological progress. Invoking the “prophetic novels of Jules Verne and Edward Bellamy” (an especially interesting reference given that Wilkinson was a staunch conservative and Bellamy a renowned socialist), Wilkinson declared that “we are living in a stunning era of accelerated knowledge.” And yet, he said, we are also “in danger of being ‘submerged’ by data…. But this staggering challenge, instead of discouraging our pursuit of knowledge, must inspire us to greater intellectual mastery.”

This was a bold and forward-looking statement. But what exactly does “intellectual mastery” imply? If it is to be more than a “data” point itself, it must not be informational as much as critical, circumspect. It must designate not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also a historical perspective onto how the very meaning of knowledge changes. And providing that perspective is the role historically filled in universities by the humanities.

The situation Wilkinson describes, evocative these days less of Verne and Bellamy than of Twitter and Facebook, explains why the humanities are a vital part of BYU, and also why the inaugural theme for our Humanities Center is the pluralized version of the perfunctory question into the state of the field. We are seeking to understand not only where the field is today but also what it means even to pose this question and to pose it from this place, this unique university.

One last point seems worth mentioning. Wilkinson was president of BYU when the university grew from 5,000 to more than 25,000 students, becoming a more national and even international institution and according a phrase like “states of the humanities” a more literal meaning. Fifty years ago, BYU became a bigger place. And in our College, we like to think that with the creation of the Humanities Center, it has now become a more expansive one.