Posts Tagged ‘ humanism ’

(post)Humanism

This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism. This week we were reading Humanism, by Tony Davies, which describes the emergence of “Humanism” as a concept, a movement, a pedagogy, a philosophy, an ideology, a ‘Snark’. http://www.amazon.com/Humanism-Critical-Idiom-Tony-Davies/dp/0415420644/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1286296464&sr=8-1-spell

There are so many weighty concepts and reversals worth discussing in Davies’ Humanism that it is hard to know where to start.  Perhaps the most important aspect of Davies’ history of the term is something he never quite addresses: the structure of the text itself.

Davies’ approach to reaching a whole and encompassing definition of ‘Humanism’ says quite a lot about our own historical moment and the current state of (post)Humanism.  In his introduction Davies carefully notes that his history is not strictly chronological but should follow an internal logic, a narrative that identifies the plurality of Humanism and enumerates its myriad conflicting variations.   He begins with the 19th and 20th century attempts to first legitimize the essential and universal qualities of Humanism (undermined by the political ends such attempts are invariably put to) and then to deconstruct and disable the validity of these same qualities, and indeed, the validity of Humanism itself as a concept; then moves on to 15th century Italy and the origins of the European Renaissance (a period he does not forget to point out is just as fabricated as ‘Humanism’), pauses on the Enlightenment when the notions of essence and universality of Man are at once crystallized and inextricably bound up in the very real politics and power structures/struggles of the period; and, finally, ends at the present moment, with the realization that the very idea of Humanism is so problematic—so “chimerical” (128)—that it might not be salvageable, and yet it remains a sole refuge from a vast, cold, and unsettling universe within which our utter insignificance is wretchedly felt.  Derrida whispers through Davies’ approach to defining Humanism within a particular historical context, and then starkly proving how the definition is not humanism, is in fact an antihumanism according to how we have come to conceive the concept in terms of universality and individuality.  Like Derrida in Différance, Davies enacts the quixotic struggle to find a central truth in the plurality of meanings by circling the concept of ‘Humanism’, and in so doing proves that there is no centre [1].  There is no one ‘true’ meaning, only movement between different conceptions of the word, between the presence and absence of supporting values, humanism and antihumanism, human and Other.

I want to linger a moment on the idea of the Other, which Davies only briefly touches on in his conclusion with a too-quick summary of Emmanuel Levinas and Ted Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ (142-146).  Making a radical move Davies denies himself, I’m going to define ‘Humanism’ right now as “the pursuit of human identity “; Levinas says that ‘humanity’ is “a continuous and precarious process of becoming human…[and] the inescapable recognition that our humanity is on loan from others” (142).  We are defined as human by those things we perceive as not-human, we become ‘human’ only as a mirror reflection of the foreign, the different.  Ted Hughes’ poem gives voice to the Wodwo, a “half-human”, “larval shape” arrested in a state of becoming (144); to me, it reads rather like the internal monologue of Frankenstein’s monster in the moment it achieves self-awareness.  In Davies words, the poem is about “identity as movement, not destination; seeking, not finding” (143).  Both the Wodwo and the Monster are figures moving between the Other and the Human.  And perhaps this movement is what (post)Humanism should be about, what it has always been about.

I’m fascinated by the notion of the Other because I feel it plays a key role in the analysis of popular science-fiction narratives.  It provides a fertile landscape in which to explore the figure of the robot, the cyborg, and its significance in literature.

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[1] In his concluding chapter, Davies describes how the pursuit of progress through a science founded on Reason—a defining feature of Humanism—has displaced “the very notion of ‘centre’ that secures the conceptual scaffolding of the human.” (132)

Roman classics? No, China

Following last week’s readings for Posthumanism, it seems like a broadly accepted fact that the European Renaissance is the primary cause of Humanism.  The Renaissance is often characterized by a renewed interest in classical Roman and Greek literature in the late middle ages, during which seminal texts by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, Boethius, Ovid and Homer (to name a few), were more widely taught in European universities.  But there’s another cause of the Renaissance that is perhaps less commonly known.

This week I ran across a book by Gavin Menzies, 1434.  1434 is the year Chinese navigator Zheng He (who is credited for circumnavigating the globe in 1421– Menzies’ previous book, btw, titled 1421) landed in Florence and met with the pope (http://www.amazon.ca/1434-Gavin-Menzies/dp/0061492183/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1285550195&sr=8-1).  The book describes the events leading up to the Chinese Emperor sending Zheng He and this illustrious fleet around the world in detail, and the noted encounters of the Chinese delegation with the Italians.  To sum up, Menzies credits the Renaissance to the knowledge the Chinese shared in these encounters.

So, added to the list of the possible origins of Humanism now is Zheng He and the Chinese. Granted, Menzies’ version of history is fanciful and hard to believe, but really is it any more far-fetched than Harold Bloom asserting that Humanism is entirely the product of Shakespeare’s plays?

Bloom’s Cult of the Bard

This is a response to a reading for HUCO617: Posthumanism– The introduction and first chapter of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

We were asked to read this selection while paying careful attention to how Bloom sets up Shakespeare as the origin of what we today call “humanism”, and to wonder, “What if Shakespeare never existed?  What if Bloom made him up?”

To start with, Bloom’s Shakespeare makes me think of the reverence and divine elevation of the title character in A Canticle for Leibowitz.  In the first part of Walter Miller Jr.’s novel, a novice monk uncovers some cryptic documents apparently written by the founder of his order, Leibowitz.   Over the centuries Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, becomes a symbol for the preservation of knowledge.  Shakespeare and his works are also a symbol: for Bloom, he is a symbol of what it means to be human, and Bloom proselytizes about how significant his existence was in the promotion of that ideal.

If Shakespeare never existed, Bloom implies, our understanding of who we are as human beings– humanism, more generally– would be completely different, unfathomable.  I suggest that Shakespeare makes a convenient symbol for Bloom, just as Leibowitz was convenient for the Albertian Order in Miller’s novel… but if he had never existed there would have been someone else to take his place.

Bloom’s mistake is to present Shakespeare as existing in a virtual vacuum; he talks about influences on Shakespeare’s writing only in the context of how Shakespeare imitated existing forms, such as Ovid, to showcase his originality.  Bloom grudgingly admits Chaucer affected Shakespeare’s work (“He took hints from Chaucer…”), but Chaucer– who preceded Shakespeare by two centuries– began exploring the human condition in his Canterbury Tales in such a sophisticated way that it is still critically read for that reason today.  Shakespeare may crystallize several centuries of literary tradition and Renaissance thought in his plays, acting as a lodestone for generations of literary criticism, but he is hardly responsible for inventing humanism as a founding principle of western philosophy.  I’d contend the fact that Shakespeare so effectively summarized the prevailing philosophical bent of the European Renaissance has made it too easy for centuries of critics like Bloom to invoke his work as the culmination of western literary tradition.  Arguably, this position has stunted the growth of literary criticism, paying poor tribute to the many good creative works that have been written since, and we are only now beginning to grasp other approaches to criticism.

Another thought (and I have to say, I had many I’m leaving unmentioned in reading Bloom’s text): Bloom quotes T.S. Eliot in saying, “…all we can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.  I propose only that we cease to be wrong about him by stopping trying to be right.”  This is a truism that should apply to all sufficiently sophisticated creative works, “literature”, not just Shakespeare.  The more closely you examine an object, and the more eyes you have examining it, the more it reveals.  We have had four hundred years to examine Shakespeare’s corpus– imagine what we could get out of four hundred years of interpretations of Joyce’s Ulysses?

Art is Art and Science is Science, “and never the twain shall meet”?

HuCo 500 – Weekly questions

 

The notion of hypothesis testing and empirical validation comes out of the language of experimental science– a rhetorical tradition that evolved to lend some structure to the exploration of the natural world by providing a method for separating the unversally agreed-upon (‘the facts’) from the focus of current disagreement and debate.  It is not difficult to imagine why such language would seem foreign…in a field so focused…on encouraging the critical discourse to continue. (Ramsey, 2003)

Is the language and methodology of “experimental science” completely incompatible with that found in literary criticism?  Does it/could it have a place in defining, even enriching the critical discourse?

Related: What role should computational methods play in the act of interpretation?

 

This does not imply that the software should be neutral, as many tools and web sites in digital humanities try to be.  It cannot be neutral in this regard, since there is no level at which assumption disappears.  It must, rather, assert its utter lack of neutrality with candor, so that the demonstrably non-neutral act of interpretation can occur. (Ramsay, 2005)

Can software be neutral, or is it invariably biased by the various levels of mediation it is subject to (human agencies that participated in developing, programming, rendering the software)?  Are the tools we use ever neutral?

 

Bonus question:

[Are we not] inflicting an inappropriate humanism upon the cherished positivism of scientific enquiry? (Ramsay, 2005)

Is humanism ever inappropriate?

 

Readings:

Ramsay, Stephen. (2005). “In Praise of Pattern.” TEXT Technology. 14(2).

Ramsay, Stephen. (2003). “Toward an Algorithmic Criticism.” Literary and Linguistic Computing. 18(2).