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.

4 thoughts on “The human(ities) and the aesthetic: a NASSR response”

  1. I had not thought about the essentialist assumptions alive in these debates until now. Thank you for changing that, Brittany. Also, since you’ve brought this genre to the fore, I’d like to offer two of my current favorites. These particular “Ars Humanities” pieces came into being via call and response, with Bogost following upon Palumbo-Liu.

    Dr. David Palumbo-Liu, “Why the Humanities are Indispensable”:

    Dr. Ian Bogost, “BEYOND THE ELBOW-PATCHED PLAYGROUND, Part 2: The Digital Humanities”:

  2. Thanks for these recommendations, Michele! And I should reiterate, I do not think essentialism is automatically a bad thing. When thoughtfully-considered–ie, not assumed uncritically as a set of static (whether biological or cultural) norms–it’s actually quite important to statements like Toni Morrison’s about the “human significance” embedded in literary work (cited by Palumbo-Liu).

  3. Enjoyed this. Your remark about the narrow no-man’s-land between “prescriptive” and “merely strategic” invocation of “‘human’ essentials” is nicely put.

    I am, to put my cards on the table, a historicist through and through. But the thing you’re taking aim at (the flat denial that *anything* could transcend a rather narrowly defined historical moment) is one part of our field’s interpretation of historicism that I would not be at all sad to say goodbye to.

    Terminology is going to be tricky, of course. “Essential,” “universal,” and “human” may be so tarred with prescriptivism at this point that there’s no point in trying to rehabilitate those words. But we’ll have to see how this plays out.

  4. Ted, I absolutely agree that the terminology here is very problematic. Were we to find workable substitutes, I think that “essential” and “universal” might be usefully jettisoned for less prescriptive terms, especially as disclaimers that “universal doesn’t *actually* mean universal” often sound like special pleading. “Human,” however, I am not so sure about, though it’s even tricker insofar as it’s a biological, species term as well as a cultural one. A good articulation, I think, of the type of practical-minded negotiation between essentialism (biological and cultural) and historical specificity such rebranding may require is the introduction to Alan Richardson’s 2010 collection of essays, The Neural Sublime. Richardson recounts some of the ways scholars using the lens of contemporary cognitive science have engaged history, and their approaches struck me as thoughtful and levelheaded.

    On a completely different note: to show my own hand, this blog post came partially out of my own crisis of scholarly self-identity. I actually do primarily historical work, but recently I’ve been exploring critical approaches beyond my comfort zone (with a fair bit of difficulty–it’s much harder to practice than preach!)

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