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The human(ities) and the aesthetic: a NASSR response

I don’t know how many of you at this year’s NASSR attended the seminar on Aesthetics chaired by Frances Ferguson and Anne-Lise Francois, but it was packed. I came in five minutes late and wound up sitting on the floor along with fifteen or twenty other people. The nosebleed seats were worth it, though: the seminar was engaging and at times even combative. Though focused, obviously, on aesthetics—specifically, Kant’s aesthetics—the seminar also touched on wider critical questions. One of its liveliest debates concerned the problem of essentialism. Specifically, the universality of aesthetic response. Is there one? What are the ethical implications of assuming the answer is “yes”? What are they if we assume the answer is “no”?

For at least some of the attendees, the dangers of the former clearly outweighed its benefits—the adjective “essentialist” was at times deployed as a sort of polite insult. For others, there was still something valuable in the idea of a transhistoric or quintessentially human aesthetic response. Underwriting this debate was the question of what, if anything, is “essential” to our own discipline.

As someone who works in literature and medicine, I am used to seeing a rather different side to this question. The burgeoning field of Narrative Medicine often takes as its jumping-off point the claim that narrative—telling and listening—is a constitutively human activity. Scholars like Rita Charon and Kathryn Hunter have argued that illness unfolds narratively and analyzed such “stories of illness” as a baseline for constructing a therapeutic model that treats the whole patient. As Charon puts it, “Narrative studies, many physicians are beginning to believe, can provide the ‘basic science’ of a story-based medicine that can honor the patients who endure illness and nourish the physicians who care for them.”* In an effort to combat professional medicine’s reputation as uncaring and impersonal, Charon and her colleagues have begun exploring ways in which “literary” acumen can help doctors and patients better communicate. To my admittedly-biased mind, their work represents one of the best and most visible defenses of why the humanities, and English as a discipline, still matter.

What, then, do we make of the fact that Narrative Medicine is built on the back of an essentialist claim about humans’ dependence upon a particular aesthetic category (ie, narrative)? Much, I think—though again, I’m not exactly objective. I recall a conversation I had with a U of T medical student last fall on our respective degree programs. We were talking about forming a collaborative reading group for English and Medical students and faculty, and he said, “You have something we need. Humanity, understanding people. We need that.” This is an extreme statement, and I’m not convinced it describes most doctors (though it may flag, as do similar complaints of 500-student English classes, an inadequacy in professional forms of instruction). Nevertheless, his claim reminded me of the subtitle of Martha Nussbaum’s popular book Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Notice the shared verb and its object; I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Though I would be the first to admit problems in Nussbaum’s argument, her work, laudably aimed at an audience beyond the already-converted, foregrounds the classificatory struggle our discipline(s) have adopted as eponymous: what (in contemporary democracy at least) it means to be human.

It seems to me that all defenses of the humanities—at least until we change the name—involve entertaining similar debates about what “we” collectively share, whether that be the ability to desire or the inability to empathize with the Other. And until English renounces its role as the study of language, of representation, those claims about humanity are somehow bound up with the aesthetic. To me, one of the most interesting and necessary developments in the slow critical turn away from historicism over the past decade has been an increasing eagerness to reexamine the nexus of these difficult but crucial categories (cf. Ian Duncan’s NASSR plenary on the novel as the genre of “human nature”).

Unlike in narrative medicine, talking about “human” essentials need not be prescriptive (ha). Nor need it be strategic, a stance that always foregrounds a shared category’s provisionality. There’s not much room between these poles, but I think it’s a ground we’re duty-bound to explore. For example: during the Aesthetics seminar, Frances Ferguson—revisiting a point from her book Solitude and the Sublime, that Kant’s sublime involves an “essentially narrative agreement, making representative structures more important than the objects that move into and out of their particular patterns” (31)**—ventured that a broadly-encompassing aesthetic response might be posited in terms of form, not content. In other words (though this is vastly simplifying Ferguson’s point), “we” react to beauty via similar mechanisms, though how we go on to value that beauty differs. Though I don’t necessarily agree with this paradigm, I applaud its impulse. Ferguson’s suggestion skirts the boundaries of psychology (and/or cognitive science), and in doing so loops right back to the eighteenth century, when writers concerned with aesthetics—Burke, Smith, Hume, and of course Kant—were also leaders in discovering how the human mind functioned. Theirs was an Enlightenment humanism, to be sure, with all its attendant problems and historical blinkers, but they helped buoy the aesthetic as a key location for exploring the grounds of human nature.

In an intellectual climate where the humanities have become a territory that needs defending, let’s not cede that ground too easily.
**Ferguson, Frances. Solitude and the Sublime. New York: Routledge, 1992.

NASSR 2011 Schedule Draft

NASSR program draft June 2011

Graduate Student Caucus events will take place on Thursday, the first day of the conference, and include a roundtable and social gathering.

1) Thursday, 8/11, 10:30 – noon
NGSC Sponsored Roundtable: The Job Market
*Remember that this is the morning of day 1 of the conference. We hope you will make travel arrangements accordingly.

Participants will include:

Rob Anderson (Oakland University)
Alan Bewell (University of Toronto)
Julie Carlson (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Frances Ferguson (Johns Hopkins University)
William Galperin (Rutgers University, New Brunswick)
Jonathan Mulrooney (College of the Holy Cross)
Juan Sanchez (University of California, Los Angeles)

2) Thurs, 8/11, 7:30pm
Join your brethren for the NGSC Pub Night Gathering. Location TBD. We will keep you posted!

Looking forward to seeing you at NASSR —



Post written in early spring

Scene: Last Friday, the elevator in the English department building, 6 pm. Having just polished off this semester’s pile of marking, I was headed home to relax: watch reruns of bad 80s sci-fi, or attack the issues of Scientific American that had been accumulating on my desk since March. In the elevator, I met one of our department’s senior scholars. I asked her casually if she was also headed home for some leisure time. She looked at me—to steal a line from A Christmas Story—as if I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. She then laid out, with good-humored acquiescence, her workload over the next few weeks. Between marking, administrative duties, conference-papers, and her own research, there was no “one day / [to] give to idleness.”

The episode set me thinking about my own future as an academic. One defining feature of our profession is its status as “vocation” in the older sense, from Latin vocare: a calling, not a job. We’re not in it for the money. Dedication to liberal humanism doesn’t clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, because our quotidian commitments are simply the lens through which we focus the larger “life of the mind” we’re supposed to be living. The inculcation of this attitude in our students—the love of knowledge and its importance to creating engaged citizens—is the M-4 carbine in the humanist’s self-defense arsenal: standard issue.

All of this is well and good, but I sometimes wonder if it also enables the development of a sort of martyr mentality. We’ve all, I’d venture, participated in commiseratory gripe-sessions with our colleagues in which we detail just how much work we’ve got on our plates, how little time we’ve got to do it, and how much sleep/fun/sanity we’ve burnt on the altar of academic aspiration. These conversations are a great pressure-valve, a useful communal catharsis, but in my experience they also carry a slight flavor of underlying competition. What we’re willing to sacrifice for academia becomes, like Isaac, an index of our devotion. Standing in the elevator, having just revealed that I had indeed “clocked out” for the day, I felt a twinge of guilt: was I a bad academic? Having committed myself to this calling, was it a moral and professional lapse to want to mute that call (even for a weekend)?

I think the answer is “no,” but an answer we’re oddly ambivalent about endorsing. I literally-just-now received a facebook message from a friend postponing our coffee date to discuss the new Doctor Who: “Holidays don’t matter in Grad School. No plans, just this albatross on my neck.” Really? The albatross, of course, is hung “instead of the cross.” My friend’s comment thus casts academia as convulsive penitential submission, the mortification required of sinners who will never meet the ideal. Where did this attitude come from?

I’ve already suggested one possible source, our need to distance ourselves from the utilitarian mentality that increasingly dominates university culture. I think another might be the job market, which has gotten so competitive that it sometimes seems like the only way to land a tenure-track position is to don the albatross. My colleague in the elevator may not have gotten where she is today if she didn’t sacrifice as much as she did. I guess, if that’s what it takes. But I can’t help wondering if that level of commitment drains our vocation of what made it so attractive in the first place. After all, Wordsworth may have celebrated reading and thinking “long and deeply,” but he still nagged Hazlitt (excuse me, “Matthew”) to ditch the books and go outside.

Then again, maybe all of the above is a manifestation of my own anxieties. Have any of you encountered the attitude I’m describing, and if so, what do you think of it? What is the right balance between academic-life and other-life? On this most fitting of days to discuss martyrdom, how much academic self-sacrifice do you feel is appropriate or virtuous?

Time Change for Journal Publishing Panel!

The NASSR Graduate Student Caucus’s Special Roundtable on Journal Publication, “‘What is now proved was once, only imagin’d’; or, What Every Graduate Student Should Know about Journal Publication” has been rescheduled:

Saturday, August 21st
10:30 – noon

Remember, this special panel is your chance to ask questions directly to the editors of three of the leading journals in our field: SiR, ERR, and RaVoN.

We look forward to seeing you there!

Website development ideas

We are in the process of developing a more functional website to be the NGSC homepage than our current blog. What ideas or requests do you have for this website? Please leave them here as comments.

For example:
– what kinds of pages would be helpful for you?
– what kinds of information would you like the website to contain?
– what sort of functionality would you like?
– Is there a website out there (like Romantic Circles, for example), that works really well and that you suggest as a kind of model?

Thanks for your input!
– Kirstyn