This post is something of a continuation of a post from a few months ago. I have been looking over the very interesting beginnings of an online conference on the interdisciplines site entitled ‘Global Humanities’. One of the papers, written by Noga Arikha (author of a book on the Humours that I thoroughly enjoyed reading more than a year ago) calls for a return to the idea of the ‘republic of letters’. In the concluding paragraph of her introductory passage, Arikha makes a point that speaks to me:
The acceleration of the flow of information corners the access to this sort of knowledge, and the humanities choke beneath the proliferation of data that crunches against the deep time needed to study, question, wonder, and learn about human nature, as opposed to numbers. And it is perhaps the ease, precisely, with which history is forgotten in our fast times, that breeds in our governments the anti-humanist short-sightedness of cutting funds to humanities research and education. Whether or not humanities departments are themselves to be blamed, nothing less is at stake here than cultural memory, and a more humane future.
As i’ve argued before, one of the panaceas for the problem of a changing and often disheartening humanities is a change of focus. We are humanists, and I think that if we think of ourselves as such (rather than as the shambling revenant corpse of a 19th c. wissenschaft) then things start to look different.
Naturally this is not a new idea. There are many centres, organisations, programs and curricula that take this very seriously. And yet I think that, as Noga Arikha has reminded us, we are part of a connected republic of letters. And it is these letters, a flow of language, of ideas, of dynamic forces, that make us who we are: the humanities are after all litterae humaniores (the ‘more human’ letters). Nevertheless, I think that it is an idea that needs to be not only experienced, but actively integrated into our metacognitive practices on a daily basis.
How then can we protect the cultivation of humanity? One thing I learned from studying research commercialisation for a few months last year is that the money and science people aren’t as ignorant as we often think. The model of GAAP (generally accepted accounting practise) is coming under increased pressure to account for so-called ‘intangibles’, value adding forces that do not appear on a balance statement. Just as the GDP model has come under attack for not accounting for environmental impact, and India has addressed this issue, so too must we be ahead of the curve. Sociology tells us that sustainability requires social capital, anthropology stressed the need for cultural capital, and maslow’s hierarchy of needs has long demonstrated that meeting social needs is a core skill for self-actualisation. They get it (not always where it counts, but that takes time). My question for those of us who work in the humanities is: do we?
We are not impotent pawns in the game of shadowy money men, but connected, interested, passionate and potentially potent. All of us can take part in a process of asserting the importance of endeavours ad cultum humanitatis (to the cultivation of humanity).
As a final point, i’d like to end with a spurious etymology and an analogy. First i’ll quote Cicero (taken from here):
“The cultivation of the mind is a kind of food supplied for the soul of man. [Lat., Animi cultus quasi quidam humanitatis cibus.]”
Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero)Source: De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (V, 19)
It is interesting to not that alternative meanings of cultus are tilling, protection, nurture, worship, honouring, adornment and so on. Thus, if we wish to pursue studium humanitatis, we must also learn to feed it, nurture it, grow it, protect it and propagate it as well as worship and adore it (which I think we do pretty well). Maybe what we need to do is figure out where the vacant lots are in the monolithic landscape of 21st century thought. When we find one, we should take a page out of the book of a modern urban eco warrior. Don’t beat vainly at the gate of the fence, grab a seed bomb and throw it over! We must work with the barriers placed in our path rather than beating away impotently at them, help each other out instead of squabbling. Guerilla humanities has a certain appeal. Obviously this is a fairly feeble analogy, but one that has given me food for thought.
p.s. A few new posts have popped up of late on this topic, such as this one from Ecology without Nature and this one. I agree that we should be coming up with new approaches, not endlessly pontificating about the matter. I do disagree with dismissing the idea of being a ‘global citizen’, but I prefer Arikha’s republic of letters.