Faith after the Anthropocene: A Prehistory

Faith after the Anthropocene: A Prehistory

The Editor’s Column of the current issue of PMLA (134.3) opens with Wai Chee Dimock sharing a little of her experience recuperating from a serious accident last fall.

Many things came to me during my four weeks at Spaulding Rehab: consolatory e-mails, cards, some flowers, and a care package from PMLA that kept me going for the entirety of my stay. What I never expected was a translation of a story by the Japanese writer Shiga Naoya, sent by Scott Miller, dean of the College of Humanities at Brigham Young University (BYU) and the translator.

Dimock goes on to describe the Shiga piece and what moved her about it, lighting on a phrase, “collateral resilience,” that describes her impressions of the story and of what BYU specifically enables in its educational mission. I quote here one of the article’s paragraphs:

Collateral resilience has no better ground than this university. Faith-based education is central to the mission of BYU: languages, however honored and flourishing, serve an instrumental function. Still, what can be done on this footing is not trivial. For the field coverage here is impressive even as a side benefit, allowing most of the primary languages of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas to be taught: Akan, Aymara, Bengali, Bicolano, Burmese, Cakchiquel, Cambodian, Cantonese, Cebuano, Dari, Fijian, Guarani, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Hmong, Ilangot, Indonesian, Japanese, Javanese, K’iche’, Korean, Laotian, Malagasy, Malay, Mandarin Chinese, Maori, Maya, Mongolian, Navajo, Pashto, Persian, Quechua, Samoan, Swahili, Tagalog, Tahitian, Tamil, Thai, Tongan, Twi, Urdu, Vietnamese, Waray, and Xhosa. Given this critical mass of spoken tongues, a further side benefit is the emergence of indigenous languages as a galvanizing force at BYU: not a relic from the past but an innovator shaping the future of the university and affecting every aspect of its intellectual life, taking higher education into the twenty-first century and beyond.

The column is about indigeneity and its resurgence. In addition to BYU, Dimock discusses the University of Washington and its Department of American Indian Studies and the presence of indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest. UW is noteworthy on several fronts, from its interdisciplinary approach to indigenous studies and the “rights-affirming, practice-rich ethos at the UW School of Law” to the catalyzing presence of indigeneity across the UW system. “Language revitalization is at once a collateral effect and a causal agent in this environment, making indigenous languages a generative force across the university.” But she closes, notably, by circling back to BYU, discussing its law school (“a pioneer in American Indian law”), innovative pedagogy in BYU’s McKay School of Education, BYU’s minor in Native American Studies, and recent exhibits in the Museum of Art. It’s an important article that ends on an elegant and optimistic note: “looking to a future that it can create only collaboratively, resilient indigeneity gives us a road map to the future of higher education itself.” In its way, BYU is emblematic of this future.

Wai Chee, who teaches at Yale, is one of the nation’s most influential literary scholars. I consider her a friend, and she is a friend of our university and college. The inspiration for her column, as she mentions in the piece, was her presence at the symposium our Humanities Center sponsored last September. It was there that she got talking with our dean, who moved her, first, by being “in attendance almost the entire time,” and second, by telling her about his experience as a missionary in Japan and what it did to inspire him not only with an affection for the Japanese language, but “with an abiding love for Japanese cinema and early sound recordings, as well as literature of all genres, all periods.” It was during one of the breaks between sessions that Wai Chee and Scott got talking about the peerless teaching of languages at BYU. Later that day, she and our other guests received a guided tour of the Museum of Art, which included a poignant exhibit titled Dignity: Tribes in Transition. By the end of the day, Wai Chee was speaking with me about a budding idea for her guest column in PMLA.

Our Humanities Center is preparing to host another large symposium this September. And this time, it is Wai Chee who inspired us. One of our invited guests at last year’s symposium had to drop out days before the event. It was too late to invite anyone else and, not wanting to mess up the schedule we’d arranged, I took this guest’s place on the program and spoke about my current research on literature and spiritual experience. After my talk, Wai Chee engaged me in conversation. She was intrigued with the category of spirituality, though also bothered by the baggage the word has accrued in western culture. The next morning, having ruminated further, she sent me an email sharing an idea that had come to her. Spirituality, she thought, might be just the right concept for connecting the subject of Earth stewardship to interfaith dialogue. Not only would such a discussion fit the mission of BYU, she reasoned, but it might make a genuinely important contribution to the humanities as a whole. This resonated with me, I shared her idea with others, and the topic for this year’s symposium was born.

I append, below, the symposium abstract and hope you will join us next month for what promises to be two days of extraordinary insight and conversation. Even more than that, I hope you will reflect, as I often do, on BYU’s remarkable place in the constellation of universities and on ways it channels inspiration, both our own and that of brilliant friends like Wai Chee Dimock.

On Being Vulnerable, Part II: Faith after the Anthropocene

In 2018, the BYU Humanities Center held a symposium titled “On Being Vulnerable: ‘Crisis’ and Transformation.” BYU faculty and distinguished invited speakers reflected together on how retrenchment has become a dominant reflex of the humanities during vulnerable times, and how such a response only exacerbates the state of “crisis” from which the impulse toward retrenchment, toward defensiveness, is designed to protect us. In response, we sought to reflect on how vulnerability opens us to the prospect of change. We took a cue from Hannah Arendt, who argues in The Human Condition that only actions of the most vulnerable kind—self-disclosing, interpersonal, unanticipated, and hence lacking defense of precedent or certainty of outcome—achieve lasting effects. Arendt associates such actions with speech and writing, drama, music—in short, with the arts and humanities—and contrasts them with displays of strength that fortify institutions and bolster economies but ultimately do little to cultivate the human spirit. In effect, she provides a model for the humanities after an era of “crisis,” when humanities disciplines are increasingly portrayed as indefensible and when their greatest chance for survival, ironically, may depend on how their proponents embrace that very trait.

Our symposium for 2019 represents a continuation and evolution of this theme. We are particularly interested this year in addressing the vulnerability associated with our ecological condition – but less the vulnerability of the earth per se than of how the earth’s precarious state reveals our own and prompts us to new ways of thinking and being. The Anthropocene, of course, designates the earth in a state of transformation, cataclysmically so, in response to human activity; but is it possible to imagine ourselves transformed for the better as a function of the ecological peril our planet faces? How might our consciousness of gathering catastrophe incite changes in us that help us redress the deeper conditions of which the Anthropocene is a symptom? We are especially compelled here by the thought of how our vulnerability – on the one hand, in the face of ecological disaster and, on the other, the transformative thinking this condition requires – inspires us to reconceive our place in the cosmos, alongside each other and, potentially, before God. “Faith after the Anthropocene” refers to ways our current condition of sober novelty, of generative catastrophe, modifies our beliefs and practices, both religious and secular. Who are we “after” (the concept of) the Anthropocene? How might we project and approach the horizon of our existence? What forms of thought and structures of feeling might attend us in this state? How might we determine our values and to what do we orient our hopes?

While retaining the insights from Hannah Arendt that helped direct our thinking during last year’s symposium – that is, while continuing to give special thought to the role the humanities play in helping us recognize and respond to the prospects of our own vulnerability – we might take our lead this year from Bruno Latour. In a recent essay, Latour proposes three territorial constructs – Globe, Land, and Earth. He deems Globe and Land illegitimate inasmuch as they correspond with typical Left/Right distinctions (globalization versus nationalism, science versus tradition, progressive versus conservative, utopia versus Heimat, etc.). His point is that modernity cannot remain on its current course – there is no “Globe,” there is no “Land” – so we must learn to think differently. Faith, whether taken affectively or institutionally, will play a crucial role in formulating a theory and habitus of Earth; and Earth, in turn, will impact whatever we mean by faith. Thinking those two together is the object of this symposium.

This post was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center

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