By Ruby Shao ’17
To herald each academic year, the Humanities Council invites the University community to consider vital issues within humanistic teaching and research. The 14th Annual Colloquium, “Things as They Should be? A Question for the Humanities,” took place on Wednesday, September 9 over Zoom.
Acknowledging the trauma of the pandemic, economic hardship, and racial injustice, Council Chair and Religion Professor Eric S. Gregory moderated. He welcomed the opportunity to celebrate and quarrel about what humanists do at a time when the country and the university urgently face the gap between stated ideals and current realities, with calls to enlist the humanities for social, political, and ethical transformation.
According to Gregory, the theme arose from recent conversations on the status of normativity. As examples, he listed the so-called ethical turn in fields like literature and anthropology, along with longstanding debates about history and theory, facts and values, and the ethics of reading. Other cases involved the function of poetry; the purposes of the novel; the relation between philosophy and the history of philosophy; and new versus old-fashioned historicism.
This discussion began with remarks from Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a former member of the Humanities Council executive committee and Chair and James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor of African American Studies. Glaude endorsed twentieth-century American writer James Baldwin’s injunction “to tell as much of the truth as one can bear, and then a little more.”
Though Baldwin was propounding how to become a great novelist, Glaude applied his counsel more broadly. Glaude said the fantasy of an achieved American democracy has distorted our moral sense, because it requires lying to ourselves about our past actions. “The world as we wish it to be all too often drives our descriptions, our choices of words, our willingness to take rude positions and ask hard questions,” he explained.
In response, Glaude demanded withering critiques of our country, including about race relations, wealth inequalities, and healthcare disparities. Writers especially should supply candid words that open the imaginations of Americans and stir them to improve. Only by facing problems can we hope to change them, he said.
“We have to describe ourselves to ourselves honestly, without the crutch of our myths and illusions,” he noted. “The trouble is deeper than we think. The trouble is in us.”
Classics Professor Barbara Graziosi, a current member of the Council’s executive committee, summarized ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle’s hierarchy of disciplines. It privileges philosophy, which concerns things as they should be. Literature follows, for it moves from things as they might be toward things as they should be. Lastly stands history, which covers things as they are.
These boundaries blurred in the life of nineteenth-century Italian literary classicist, and revolutionary martyr of the Bourons, Luigi Settembrini, who produced groundbreaking scholarship while imprisoned under the harshest conditions imaginable in the Panopticon fortress on the island of Santo Stefano. His work carried normative force by harnessing insights from emotional commitments and embodied experiences, rather than just intellectual arguments, she said. In dialogue with Glaude, Graziosi emphasized the need for pleasure and hope, as we turn to both past and future, in order to build resilience to confront the challenges of the present.
In response to ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s conception of love as arising between the active lover and the passive beloved, Settembrini contended that lovers should have similar power and therefore, ideally, also be around the same age. He extended his view to politics, where he advocated for equality and reciprocity between the men and women of a future Italian nation. Furthermore, Settembrini rejected so-called Platonic love’s emphasis on the soul, instead claiming that true Neoplatonism, which he redefined, extolled the pleasures of the body.
Graziosi identified Settembrini’s most startling feature as the obvious comfort he took in Plato specifically and the classical past more generally, despite his criticism. She added that, illuminating the relationship between history and fiction, Settembrini drew strength from a tradition of popular Platonism found in ancient fiction, which inspired his writing and political action directed at the future.
“When we work on normativity, or things as they should be, we gain strength and resilience from considering also what was, and from letting our imagination linger with pleasure on what might be,” Graziosi said.
Director and Professor of Creative Writing Jhumpa Lahiri said the word “might” initially differentiates the poet and the philosopher from the historian. She emphasized the weight of the term, contrasting different translations.
“The writer has always depended on the means, strength, capacity, and above all, the freedom to fill the page with either a single word or as many as will fit in the space, without ‘should’ lurking in the corner. The mightiness of literature, its infinite potential, lies there,” Lahiri explained.
She portrayed literature in terms of wishes. Every character must desire something not yet attained. More generally, fiction and poetry project beyond the current moment, sometimes expressing fierce yearnings for counterfactuals.
“Things are seldom as they should be, which is why we spend so much time and energy wishing they could be different,” she said.
While recognizing that change often catalyzes art, Lahiri said she believed that art should never seek to change anything or wed itself to a social or political purpose. Like a mirror, art ought simply to explore the phenomenon and the consequences of change itself, she added. This semester, Lahiri is co-teaching a capstone seminar in Humanistic Studies, “Ancient Plots, Modern Twists” (HUM 470).
The final panelist to speak was Melissa Lane, a 2020–2021 Old Dominion Research Professor in the Humanities Council; Director of the University Center for Human Values; and Class of 1943 Professor of Politics. In considering how normative theorizing works, she focused on the perils of what she called “the normalizing impulse,” which expects compatibility between the normatively possible and the normally probable. For instance, on her account, Aristotle conflated the normative and the normal.
According to Lane, Aristotle holds that most acorns will turn into oak trees. Notably, he attributes this normal and normative process to not necessity, but rather overwhelming probability, excluding only occasional chance factors like a lack of water or sun. Yet this approach cannot account for any systematically damaging forces, whether natural or social. Just as climate change drought can blight acorns, so can racism and other forms of domination blight human lives, Lane said.
She suggested that one common reaction is to try to avoid this problem by severing the probable from the possible, focusing on the possible alone. Thus proceeds ideal theory as often practiced in philosophy and political theory. While worthwhile for the sake of analytical rigor, she highlighted potential dangers of which such projects must be aware: privilege, which precludes certain perspectives, and false universality, whereby scholars fail to notice relevant aspects of real, non-ideal circumstances. In conversation with the thought of John Rawls, she gave the example of how ideal theory on equality of opportunity can insufficiently account for the racism that might be likely to threaten its realization.
Lane offered a pair of remedies. “Intradisciplinarity” would enable ideal theorists to take responsibility for painful patterns likely to recur, which she called “the pain of the probable.” They ought not simply to relegate the task to non-ideal theorists, but to collaborate closely with them. Meanwhile, “interdisciplinarity” would help ideal theorists to learn from literature, especially from narratives of dystopia, to see how hopeful possibilities can be derailed by harmful probabilities, she said.
Inspiration for her remarks stemmed from the 1991 essay “Theory as Liberatory Practice” by bell hooks, whose sentiment Lane echoed: “I found a place of sanctuary in ‘theorizing,’” as “a place where I could imagine possible futures, a place where life could be lived differently.”
The panel, which closed with questions from undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, and faculty, advanced the Humanities Council’s mission of encouraging cross-disciplinary conversation, teaching, and research.