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The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life

Edited by Peter Brooks
with Hilary Jewett
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 172
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  • Book Info
    The Humanities and Public Life
    Book Description:

    Is there an ethics of reading, and is this something that the interpretive humanities can and should contribute to other professional fields, including law, and to public life? This book tests the proposition that the humanities can, and at their best do, represent a commitment to ethical reading. And that this commitment, and the training and discipline of close reading that underlie it, represent something that the humanities need to bring to other fields: to professional training and to public life. What leverage does reading, of the attentive sort practiced in the interpretive humanities, give you on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? The question was posed for many in the humanities by the "Torture Memos" released by the Justice Department a few years ago, presenting arguments that justified the use of torture by the U.S. government with the most twisted, ingenious, perverse, and unethical interpretation of legal texts. No one trained in the rigorous analysis of poetry could possibly engage in such bad-faith interpretation without professional conscience intervening to say: This is not possible. Teaching the humanities appears to many to be an increasingly disempowered profession--and status--within American culture. Yet training in the ability to read critically the messages with which society, politics, and culture bombard us may be more necessary than ever in a world in which the manipulation of minds and hearts is more and more what running the world is all about. This volume brings together a group of distinguished scholars and intellectuals to debate the public role and importance of the humanities. Their exchange suggests that Shelley was not wrong to insist that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind: Cultural change carries everything in its wake. The attentive interpretive reading practiced in the humanities ought to be an export commodity to other fields and to take its place in the public the public sphere.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5706-5
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)
    Peter Brooks

    Over the past few years, I have taught a seminar for students and faculty under the title “The Ethics of Reading and the Cultures of Professionalism.” The seminar asked these questions: What leverage does reading of the attentive sort practiced in the humanities give one on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? Should such an ethics of reading inhabit professional training and the public sphere as well? These questions were posed for me with brutal force after reading the “Torture Memos” released by the U.S. Department of Justice, in the years following their composition in 2002.¹ These...

  5. Ordinary, Incredulous
    (pp. 15-38)
    Judith Butler

    I have been reflecting on the question of how best to begin this essay on humanities in the public sphere because the terms are large: humanities, the public sphere, or, perhaps more specifically, public life. Yet the sense of the task is quite precise: We have been asked to establish the relation between the two, or to provide some guidelines on how that link might be demonstrated. One reason we are asked to do this is that the link has become unsure. Certainly one of my initial responses to this invitation was simply to declare that the connection is clear....

  6. Part One. Is There an Ethics of Reading?

    • Poetry, Injury, and the Ethics of Reading
      (pp. 41-48)
      Elaine Scarry

      What is the ethical power of literature? Can it diminish acts of injuring, and if it can, what aspects of literature deserve the credit?

      All these questions, at first, hinge on another: Cananythingdiminish injury? In his bookThe Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that, over 50 centuries, many forms of violence have subsided.¹ Among the epochs he singles out for special scrutiny is a hundred-year period bridging the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during which an array of brutal acts—executing accused witches, imprisoning debtors, torturing animals, torturing humans, inflicting the death penalty, enslaving fellow human...

    • The Ethics of Reading
      (pp. 49-54)
      Charles Larmore

      What can be meant by “the ethics of reading” is not immediately obvious. The phrase has become popular in contemporary literary criticism largely through the influence of J. Hillis Miller.¹ What it suggests is that reading is a practice that raises questions of ethical significance. Yet why this should be so can seem puzzling and the writings of literary critics who invoke the phrase have done little to dispel the obscurity. Consider the term “ethics” itself. In the philosophical tradition, ethics as a discipline has been concerned with two distinct though interrelated questions: how we ought to live in order...

    • Responses and Discussion
      (pp. 55-72)

      The essays by Elaine Scarry and Charles Larmore are very stimulating, suggesting, as they do, two ways to construe the idea of an ethics of reading. Let me say something about each of them in turn, and then I will sketch the beginnings of an account of my own.

      Larmore began, I thought, with the right problem: We know we can be responsible to people, and we have some idea of what that entails. But to speak of a responsibility to a text seems like anthropomorphism. Philosophers are fine with anthropomorphism, but here, as with all figures, we would like...

  7. Part Two. The Ethics of Reading and the Professions

    • The Raw and the Half-Cooked
      (pp. 75-82)
      Patricia J. Williams

      I teach a class in Law, Media, and Public Policy. I have a series of images I sometimes show my students with which I play a little game that I call “Caption That Photo.” Here’s one (Figure 1). Generally, the students look at this and see prayer, pleading, a turning to heaven, supplication.

      Here’s another (Figure 2). This image too tends to be understood as a scene of supplication and evokes a modicum of sympathy. As a naked visual, there is a sense of desperation, urgency, massive need, an overlay of disaster.

      Here’s a third image (Figure 3). It is...

    • Conquering the Obstacles to Kingdom and Fate: The Ethics of Reading and the University Administrator
      (pp. 83-91)
      Ralph J. Hexter and Craig Buckwald

      Like the poet of theAeneid, I come to sing of troubles and challenges, formidable ones, even beyond our expectation, and so I might join Virgil in asking, incredulously, “Can there be such anger in the hearts of the gods” (“Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?”Aeneid1.33)? I cite Virgil for a number of reasons, not least because it takes me back to my familiar haunts as a classicist. A long interpretive tradition has seized on Virgil as a poet who, especially in theAeneid, focuses on showing how difficult it can be to follow an ethical course for those who...

    • Responses and Discussion
      (pp. 92-106)

      I would like to make two brief comments, one on the beginning of Patricia Williams’s essay and the other on the question of professional education and the humanities from the view of somebody who is more involved in the profession of urban design and planning than literature itself.

      Williams’s essay is really remarkable. It is particularly striking to me because I was in Haiti a few months ago, and I will share something with you that amazed me. There are 13,000 aid organizations in Haiti at the moment, and they are getting very little accomplished. One of the reasons is...

  8. Part Three. The Humanities and Human Rights

    • The Call of Another’s Words
      (pp. 109-115)
      Jonathan Lear

      It at least seems possible that we can look on others from a third- person perspective and conclude that their conditions of living—their level of poverty, malnutrition, or sanitation, their being subjected to torture or slavery—are such that their basic dignity as a human being is being violated. The thought seems to be available that they have a right to better treatment. Here the methods of measurement perfected in the social sciences can play an invaluable role, both in giving us an accurate sense of what these conditions of deprivation consist in and by helping us to see...

    • On Humanities and Human Rights
      (pp. 116-122)
      Paul W. Kahn

      Teaching in a law school, I am surrounded by colleagues who understand themselves to be social scientists. They pursue inquiries in economics, psychology, history, and regulatory administration. Their work usually begins with collecting data in forms that can be measured, and they use that data to formulate testable hypotheses. The ambition of their work is to propose legal reforms. A typical human rights inquiry for these social scientists of the law would be to gather data on whether there is any relationship between signing a treaty and State behavior. The reform ambition would be to tell us what should be...

    • Responses and Discussion
      (pp. 123-135)

      Jonathan Lear alerts us to the importance of listening to others, sitting with others, and reading together—the interpretive moments of humanistic activity. He calls our attention to recognition, dignity, and human rights. Paul Kahn reminds us of the way that law as an interpretive and text-based enterprise stands between State power and its effects. He calls our attention to interpretation, evasion, confrontation, and the complexity of tradition and human rights. Fundamentally, I agree with both of their essays. Both give us a window into how the humanities can enlarge our conception of human rights.

      Human rights aim at ensuring...

    • Concluding Discussion
      (pp. 136-148)

      Peter Brooks: I thought I might start us off by a remark of Paul Kahn’s, or what I thought I heard Paul saying, which is that the truth of interpretation in the humanities is not separable from theactof interpretation. I very much agree with this and feel that what we are talking about is an interpretivepractice, and the people who claim that the humanities speak to the world of value because you become a better person by readingClarissaorJuliehave got it all wrong. It has nothing to do with the outcome of reading, but...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 149-160)
  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 161-164)