JOURNAL OF NARRATIVE THEORY

Volume 37.2 (Summer 2007)

Special Issue

"Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project"

Figure 1. Still from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927)

Table of Contents:

A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism (Eileen A. Joy and Christine M. Neufeld)

An Historian's Notes for a Miloszan Humanism (Michael E. Moore)

The awkward term “humanism” has served as the title of too many movements and ideals, and seems drained of significance, like a wrinkled old balloon. To speak of revising and retrieving the term for a new form of humanism, as will be done here, is to invite many possible misconceptions. In a strict, traditional meaning, in the context of Renaissance humanism and its later reflections, humanism referred to an attempt to affirm the dignity of the human spirit, and to renew modern culture by a return to antiquity. These goals were to be achieved through the study of human things (res humana), by means of scholarship and literature, history and the arts. In regard to the possibilities for humanism today, and drawing on the poetry and essays of Czeslaw Milosz I wish to suggest the following theses:

This is to suggest a view of literature and scholarship as the deliberate unfolding of dimensions, and the search for possible connections to various traditions of the human past as part of our own efforts to achieve personal liberation, “penetrating this forest of ruins,” in the phrase of religious historian Gershom Scholem, who sought to rescue the Jewish past from oblivion, and thereby to find a foothold in a terrible present time (the year 1920). In a letter to Meta Jahr in that year, Scholem said that he had experienced a merger of his historical scholarship and kabbalism, claiming, perhaps ironically, that he had become a makubel or kabbalistic practitioner (Scholem 209). Any humanist approach that would be valid today must greatly expand the range of literary traditions and antiquities under study, something that has recently been called for in an admirable essay by Milan Kundera, “Die Weltliteratur.”

The humanist is a specialist in rare fragments, which are collected out of the distant past, arranged and explained like beautiful seashells. Scholarship, when it is true to the past, causes these fragments to glow as if with renewed life, thus allowing them to become part of our own spiritual world. Since the Middle Ages, the pursuit of a spiritual form of life often involved the juxtaposition and interchange of reading, reflection, prayer and meditation. A growing awareness, cultivated in the school of Chartres, that “truth is the daughter of time,” as Bernard of Chartres exclaimed, led to the incorporation of history and study of the human tradition as part of a developing humanist approach to scholarship. Bernard’s motto, Veritas filia Temporis, we may note in passing, was a learned reference to the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius (Chenu 162; Ginzburg 27).

Any broad discussion of humanism must offer some reflections on the revival of interest in the Greek and Latin classics, a hallmark of humanist culture, during the Middle Ages and during the later flourishing of humanism in the Renaissance. Various modern attempts to revive a moralising, normative humanism, such as the New Humanism of Irving Babbitt, have failed. After all, even the classics-loving poet T.S. Eliot could not bear the relentless moralism of the New Humanism (Torrance 175). The tendency of humanism to adopt a normative tone of remote grandeur has provoked a contemporary reaction against any possible humanism. Humanism can find better paths for itself by returning to literature, notably the works of Czeslaw Milosz. This would be the frame of a kind of humanism, much less certain of itself, and less given to propounding dicta for others to follow, in the style of earlier humanisms (White 426-427).

I wish to trace a path to a Miloszan humanism starting from an examination of the early appearance of humanism in the Middle Ages, on to the Renaissance and the modern era, and so to consider the possibility of returning to the idea of scholarship as a way of life, or as a contemplative path. The literary historian and professor of poetry at the Sorbonne, Émile Faguet, once noted the ancient connection beween books and contemplation, complaining that in the modern world “life is not literary because it is not contemplative” (Antonio Perez-Rioja 5). Faguet wrote in 1913, in what now seems like an ante-diluvian age, before the First World War. The old medieval ideal of the contemplative life, given canonical expression by the sixth-century author Julian Pomerius, still resonated easily with Faguet. First of all, however, it is necessary to confront the impasse faced by humanism since the late twentieth century. ( . . . . )

A New Species of Humanities: The Marvelous Progeny of Humanism and Postmodern Theory (Doryjane Birrer)

My research and teaching fields are firmly rooted in the present, but as I work through certain vexed conceptions of the human/humane, reciprocal challenges posed by humanism and postmodern theory, and how all of this might relate to the future of the humanities, I want to play around with a premodern-postmodern connection that’s a bit out of my field. I’m going to start with medieval monsters—specifically, medieval werewolves. The fourteenth-century Middle English romance William of Palerne tells the story of an heir to the Spanish throne, Alphonse, who has been bewitched into werewolf form by his stepmother. He is a friendly werewolf. A helpful werewolf. A benevolent werewolf. In short, a humane werewolf, in both senses of the term humane outlined by Raymond Williams in Keywords: he is possessed—as those instinct-driven werewolves of horror films like The Wolf Man are not—of “human nature,” of “human reason.” And he is also humane in the later sixteenth-century sense of being “kind, gentle, courteous, [and] sympathetic” (148). He rescues the eponymous young hero, is sorrowful when William leaves him, and later becomes a sort of lupine protector to him. William, in fact, characterizes the werewolf midway through the narrative as being of “man’s kind” (ll. 2505–6) and, near the end of the tale, he declares that the wolf has more human nature than William himself and the king of Spain combined (l. 4123).

This conception of the werewolf as more human than beast—in fact more human than two humans, and nobility at that—is an intriguing one, given that the classical conception of the human as defined against beasts or monsters was only just beginning its shift toward the late medieval/early Renaissance conception of humanity as conceptualized in relation to divinity (Williams 149). Perhaps that’s what makes this romance an unsettling tale: when a werewolf can be a compassionate and humane friend, and a parent can be a malevolent and inhumane enemy, how can “humanity” be identified or persuasively characterized within bodies that would be recognizably “human”? This question brings me to my second, postmodern example, from season four (1999-2000) of Joss Whedon’s cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This season marks the entrance into Buffy’s world of the Initiative: the blinkered, diabolical U.S. paramilitary agency ostensibly dedicated to capturing, de-fanging, and destroying all monsters, but more covertly involved in using them for torturous—in fact, I’ll say inhumane—experiments. So when Buffy’s season four lover Riley Finn, secretly a high-ranking Initiative commander and all around government yes-man, captures a werewolf whom his Initiative cohorts then proceed, as ordered, to torture, it should be business as usual. And yet this particular werewolf is Buffy’s friend Oz and Riley’s own student from his day job as a university teaching assistant. In fact, for a good three seasons, Oz has been one of the most humane characters on the show. I mean humane again as in benevolent and compassionate (vide Williams), but to continue highlighting the human/beast slippage, I’ll turn to the initial and interestingly abstract OED definition of humane as “[c]haracterized by such behaviour or disposition towards others as befits a man” (emphasis mine). In any case, Riley’s military “us versus them” mentality is severely challenged, as he is disturbed to discover how increasingly blurred are the boundaries between us and them, human and monster—and ultimately, given the methods and objectives of the Initiative, human and humane.

Granted, William of Palerne still relies on pretty clear distinctions between the “good” characters and the “bad” despite its humane werewolf, and Buffy continually pits her white-hatted “Scooby gang” against each season’s unequivocal “Big Bads” despite the show’s student werewolf, a scant handful of more or less harmless (if not altogether benign) demons, and a couple of vampires with souls. Although I can’t be so exhaustively circumspect as to try to address every potential loophole in my argument, surely I would at least note such obvious caveats. Much as the human capacity for higher reasoning is said to separate humans from beasts, a capacity for even higher higher reasoning is often assumed to separate academics from the lay public. A gift of savvy scholarly self-reflexivity? A higher-than-general-populace degree of awareness of the personal biases, underlying assumptions, and context-situatedness of our arguments? Call it what you will, I think academics tend to assume that we’ve got it. Much as we employ such “higher higher reasoning” to question and qualify the grounds of our own arguments, we also contest the “us/them,” “self/Other” binaries that have supported, for example, the rapacities of Imperialism and colonialism in which humanist thinking has unfortunately at times been complicit—binaries such as civilized/barbaric, industrious/lazy, rational/superstitious, self-restrained/perverse, Christian/heathen, and perhaps, at heart, even human/inhuman. And yet we fall so easily into such binaries when talking about humanism itself. This has especially been the case over the past few decades when humanism has been pitted against its most prominent Other: postmodern theory, or more broadly, anti-humanism. As with person versus werewolf, human versus monster, it’s temptingly convenient to define humanism against postmodern theory, or the reverse.

Wherein lies the lure of such binary thinking within the academy? Certainly we’ve been asked implicitly throughout our academic careers to conceive of our work, in part, in terms of disciplines and sub-disciplines, fields and specialties, categories and taxonomies. Such conceptions, however, are often tacitly if not openly acknowledged to be heuristic rather than absolute, and while they may become matters of debate, they don’t of necessity impel academics to fall into an Initiative-style us/them mentality. Perhaps in the humanism versus postmodernism context, the situation is different in that while field-related groupings generally allow for fuzzier borders and more subtle gradations, the divide between humanism and postmodernism has seemed irrevocable and un-crossable given the history of how these terms have been deployed. The rise of postmodern theory in the academy was accompanied by thinking perceived to be unequivocally anti-humanistic, in part due to theoretical content antithetical to the long history of humanist thought, and in part due to explicit challenges posed by theory to the legacies of so-called humanist behavior. And because academics on both sides of the humanist-postmodernist divide have presumably represented irreconcilably different approaches to considerations of human(e) behavior, the trajectory of the human, and the future of the humanities, considerable personal investment has been involved in defining one’s own allegiances within such contestable terrain. Consider, for example, Tony Davies’ somewhat hyperbolic (but I’d say fairly accurate) characterization of the humanist seen from a pro-humanist perspective as “the philosophical champion of human freedom and dignity, standing alone and often outnumbered against the battalions of ignorance, tyranny and superstition,” and of the humanist seen from an anti-humanist perspective as an “ideological smokescreen for the oppressive mystifications of modern society and culture, the marginalization and oppression of the multitude of human beings in whose name it pretends to speak, even . . . for the nightmare of fascism and the atrocity of total war” (5; see also Soper 80).

Homo homini lupus est: Man to man is a wolf, as the Roman proverb runs. And in an academic world in which professional interests and livelihoods, if not the fate of the humanities and humanity, are at stake, it is easy to treat each other rapaciously. Postmodern theory is the wolf huffing and puffing at the elegantly-constructed but flimsy door of humanism. Humanism is the wolf lurking deceptively under comfortable grandmotherly clothing. To construct an inhuman, monstrous Other provides a position to define oneself against, to give shape to what might otherwise be somewhat nebulous value systems, and to establish a hierarchy in which one’s own term in a spurious yet nonetheless seductive binary is privileged. I’ll be turning in a moment to the ways in which such binary thinking is becoming increasingly unsettled from within the very grounds of humanism and theory; however, it’s important to initially consider more specifically what has been at stake in competing considerations of the human and the humane, and of the presumed humanity that attaches to these markers. ( . . . . )

Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Future (Myra J. Seaman)

The human long presumed by traditional Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment humanism is a subject (generally assumed male) who is at the center of his world (that is, the world); is defined by his supreme, utterly rational intelligence; does not depend (unlike his predecessor) upon a divine authority to make his way through the world but instead manipulates it in accord with his own wishes; and is a historically independent agent whose thought and action produce history. It is this human—who is, as Tony Davies notes, “always singular, always in the present tense, . . . inhabit[ing] not a time or a place but a condition, timeless and unlocalised” (32)—that is the subject of traditional liberal humanism. His power and superiority inhere in his human essence. Yet in a posthumanist world,this human is an endangered species.

Such a statement is hardly news. Foucault, in 1966 in The Order of Things, and Levi-Strauss, in 1962 in The Savage Mind, both revealed that “the human” had been invented by the Enlightenment when it “discovered” this supposedly sovereign subject. The ensuing denaturalization of this subject has challenged the ontological foundations on which traditional humanism, and thus much of Western society, has been based. The recognition that human subjectivity has been constructed by those who have claimed it as their exclusive feature has made room for alternative posthumanist philosophies. Posthumanism observes that there has never been one unified, cohesive “human,” a title that was granted by and to those with the material and cultural luxury to bestow upon themselves the faculties of “reason,” autonomous agency, and the privileges of “being human” (Davies 19; Hayles 286). As a result, not everyone whose physiology would identify them as homo sapiens have “counted” as human (Fuss 2). Ideologically shaped distinctions have determined inclusion and exclusion, so that features with cultural significance, such as race and gender, have been misinterpreted as biologically significant and used as markers of supposed superiority or inferiority within the “species.” Posthumanism rejects the assumed universalism and exceptional being of Enlightenment humanism and in its place substitutes mutation, variation, and becoming.

The posthuman subject involves a critical deconstruction of the universal, liberal humanist subject, with the thought of Freud, Marx, Lacan, Althusser, Foucault, and Derrida, among others, as central influences in this deconstruction (Badmington 4-10). Yet, outside of theoretical circles, the posthuman subject is often described as a physical counterpart (and successor) to the universal human. This alternative, or extended, human appears in popular culture as a corporeal being whose existence is the hypothetical result of certain developments in techno-science. It is a deliberately engineered form, the imagined product of breakthroughs, both fictional and real, in genetic manipulation, reproductive technologies, and virtual reality, and it reveals certain cultural anxieties about embodiment—perhaps most especially when that embodiment is rejected or overcome in the attempt to release a supposedly “pure” cognition. Embodiment always troubles the human “person,” and is a highly slippery entity despite its apparently concrete givenness. Caroline Walker Bynum writes,

Sometimes body, my body, or embodiedness seems to refer to limit or placement, whether biological or social. That is, it refers to natural, physical structures (such as organ systems or chromosomes), to environment or locatedness, boundary or definition, or to role (such as gender, race, class) as constraint. Sometimes—on the other hand—it seems to refer precisely to lack of limits, that is, to desire, potentiality, fertility, or sensuality/sexuality . . . or to person or identity as malleable representation or construct (“Why All the Fuss?” 5).

The second view—with the human “person” a “malleable representation or construct” and embodiment as unconstrained—has many affinities with theoretical posthumanism. The inherent pliability of the culturally produced body is celebrated by cultural theorists such as Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, who describe posthuman bodies as “the causes and effects of postmodern relations of power and pleasure, virtuality and reality, sex and its consequences. The posthuman body is a technology, a screen, a projected image . . . . The human itself is no longer part of ‘the family of man’ but a zoo of posthumanities” (3). Theoretical posthumanism transforms the humanist subject into many subjects, in part by releasing the body from the constraints placed on it not only by nature but also by humanist ideology, and allowing it to roam free and “join” with other beings, animate and inanimate.

The popular culture posthuman, by contrast, envisions the challenges to the human as largely corporeal ones resulting from our supposedly intractable situatedness in the so-called natural world. In this case, what is called for is not a reconceptualization of what “counts” as human, but rather, an entirely new human form. In this view, the body limits and constrains individual freedom. Physical alterations—many of them quite radical and risky—are pursued not, however, to simply replace the weak body but to attain an extended lifespan and improved capabilities for the already-existing embodied human self. Modern techno-science, especially as depicted in the news media, encourages us to understand that self in terms of scientific discovery: we conceive of our personalities and dispositions as a genetic inheritance and chemical mixture, our brain as a computer hard drive, our memories as a series of snapshots, our minds as processors of encounters and observations that can be reprogrammed or even erased. Our bodies are machines to be fine-tuned and perfected through add-ons. So while technological and biological modifications to the body are intended to improve its inadequacies, their use indicates an investment in a distinctly individual and already human identity. Likewise, in the posthuman as it is imagined in popular culture, the bodily modifications are pursued because of the superior capabilities they can add to the already-established self. The “idea of person” indicated by such a desire reflects the “idea of person” in the Middle Ages: “not a concept of soul escaping body or soul using body [but] a concept of self in which physicality was integrally bound to sensation, emotion, reasoning, identity” (Bynum, Resurrection and the Body 11). The theoretical posthumanist conception of “person or identity as malleable representation or construct” is adamantly refused by popular posthumanism: the forms of our person may change, but identity—typically expressed in terms of “sensation, emotion, and reasoning”—persist. ( . . . . )

Mourning Rights: Beowulf, the Iliad, and the War in Iraq (Robin Norris)

Much is at stake in the afterlife of literature. Through its episodic focus on individual experience, heroic poetry gives us a means to process the magnitude of the loss of human life entailed in war. In an attempt to explain the world’s failure to respond to contemporary genocide, Paul Slovic has recently demonstrated that the average person feels the greatest affect – and is therefore most likely to act – in response to the experience of one individual in crisis. Not only do we cease to feel when presented with the suffering of thousands; our affective response to just two individuals is markedly lower than the response to one. We honor the individual, but we are incapable maintaining the same respect for the plurality. Likewise, we may not mourn for the countless Greek soldiers buried in a mass grave on the shore near Troy, but we grieve with Achilles for Patroclus, and with Priam for Hector; we may not mourn for the extinction of the Geatish nation, but we grieve with the meowle, ‘the woman’ who bemoans her fate at Beowulf’s pyre.

Although Homo sapiens may not be the only species to experience or express bereavement, and we are certainly not the only species whose loss deserves to be mourned, we seem to be the only ones writing poems of remembrance for one another. Thus, while I never met Patroclus or the Geatish meowle, the poetry of Homer and the Beowulf-poet has invited me to remember them, and to participate in the shared community of mourners at epic’s end. Transmitting sorrow through the technology of poetry is an experience unique to human beings, to being human, and reading such texts subjects Homo sapiens to a contagious mourning that allows us to weep for individuals we’ve never met, and who may have never even existed. If the study of the humanities can provoke an affective response to the plight of individuals long dead, even fictional ones, then perhaps the humanities will someday teach us to respond more fully to the real suffering of our contemporaries, the victims of force, of war or genocide.

In The Iliad or the Poem of Force, Simone Weil defines ‘force’ as “that which makes a thing of whoever submits to it” (45). “Exercised to the extreme,” she explains, “it makes the human being a thing quite literally, that is, a dead body” (45). Mourning for death, the conversion of human into thing, takes place through remembrance of the past, by recalling the time when the thing was still a human. In his famous essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud explains the importance of memory to the work of mourning when he writes, “Each single one of the memories and hopes which bound the libido to the object is brought up and hypercathected” in order to attenuate emotional attachment to the dearly departed (244). Thus, mourning is a natural process which requires a temporary focus on the past. A diagnosis of melancholy may apply to those whose attachment to the past has become permanent, and therefore pathological, as Julia Kristeva explains:

Riveted to the past, regressing to the paradise or inferno of an unsurpassable experience, melancholy persons manifest a strange memory: everything has gone by, they seem to say, but I am faithful to those bygone days, I am nailed down to them, no revolution is possible, there is no future . . . An overinflated, hyperbolic past fills all the dimensions of the psychic continuity. (60)

In short, the healthy result of the grieving process is to decathect these memories of the past in order to return to life in the present, and to life without the human person who has been lost. For many mourners, therefore, we would expect the grieving process, which takes communal form through the funerary ritual, to require remembering the past. Through remembrance, Weil’s thing continues to be remembered by humans as human, through the only afterlife we may be guaranteed: the one we humans create for our own.

Weil argues further that, as a result of his relationship to force, the warrior develops an unnatural experience of the future: “It is true that every man is destined to die and that a soldier may grow old in battles, but for those whose soul is bent beneath the yoke of war, the connection between death and the future is not the same as for other men. For others, death is a limit imposed on the future. For soldiers, it is the future itself, the future their vocation allots” (58).The afterlife of reputation is therefore of particular interest to a warrior, for if his death in war is certain, the only possible outcome is posthumous, whether glory or obsolescence. In this community, those who face death together in battle also shepherd one another into the afterlife. Thus, what we often find in heroic literature, in texts including both the Iliad and Beowulf, is the warrior mourned by his fellow warriors through remembrance of the past. ( . . . . )

Who Cares? Novel Reading, Narrative Attachment Disorder, and the Case of The Old Curiosity Shop (Maria K. Bachman)

In an oft-cited passage from the first chapter of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop, the unnamed narrator speculates on why the story of Nell has aroused his interest. Unable to dismiss from his thoughts an image of “the child in her bed: alone, unwatched, uncared for (save by angels),” the narrator muses:

We are so much in the habit of allowing impressions to be made upon us by external objects, which should be produced by reflection alone, but which, without such visible aids, often escape us, that I am not sure I should have been so thoroughly possessed by this one subject, but for the heaps of fantastic things I had seen huddled together in the curiosity-dealer’s warehouse.  These, crowding on my mind, in connection with the child, and gathering round her, as it were, brought her condition palpably before me . . . she seemed to exist in a kind of allegory. (19-20)

This passage warrants our attention for a number of reasons. First, as a narrative report of a thought act, it offers a literary representation of the thinking mind—what Alan Palmer calls “Cognitive Mental Functioning” (CMF). Specifically, the narrator here posits a theoretical and functional approach to the notion of attention—that is, how we perceive or respond to someone or something within our field of awareness. Second, the narrator’s imagining of a neglected child, “alone, unwatched, [and] uncared for,” establishes an ethics of narrative care and concern, and implicitly demonstrates the interconnection between cognition and emotion. Third, and somewhat relatedly, curiosity is introduced as both narrative strategy and subject of the novel. The narrator is struck not so much by Nell’s isolation, her “strange and solitary state,” but because she is surrounded by curiosities, “heaps of fantastic things.” He says, “It would be a curious speculation to imagine her in her future life, holding her solitary way among a crowd of grotesque wild companions” (20). Though Nell is herself a curiosity (and has ranked  highly among Dickens’s most displaced and dispossessed characters), the reader is to attend to her, as the narrator does, as inextricably connected to rather than isolated from those “shapes about her.” Finally, while we might be inclined to view Nell allegorically—and certainly, we would not be alone:  critics have long fixed Nell as the embodiment of youthful innocence and innate goodness—the narrator confounds (and perhaps corrects) such a simplistic (and redundant) allegorical identity with the word “seemed.”

Drawing on cognitive science, narrative theory, moral philosophy, and evolutionary psychology, and in the spirit of the essai, I offer here my own “curious speculation” about how curiosity and concern for others is cognitively and emotionally mediated in fiction. Although Nicholas Dames has drawn our attention to the ways in which Victorian physiologists, psychologists, and literary critics saw the novel as “a machine for the production of affect,” I think it is equally productive to think about how narrative fiction can impede both thinking and feeling. My discussion is based on two premises:  one, that human experience generally is the subject of literature; and two, that there is a significant and productive correlation to be made in the cognitive mental functioning of both fictional and real minds. As Joseph Carroll points out in Literary Darwinism, “art provides an emotionally and subjectively intelligible mode of reality, and it is within such models that human beings organize their complex behaviors in response to contingent circumstances.” These imaginative models, moreover, “direct our behavior by entering into our motivational system at its very roots—our feelings, our ideas, and our values” (xxii). 

It is generally assumed that feeling is an obvious and automatic correlative to literary response—that there is an inherent affective force at work in literature—but what I suggest here is that reading novels may shape and constrain the cognitive processes related to concern for others. As has been well noted, Dickens’s 1841 novel (the so-called story of Little Nell) was extravagantly admired among contemporary readers for its ennobling appeal to emotion—in fact, Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster noted that The Old Curiosity Shop provided “a kind of discipline of feeling and emotion which would do me lasting good”—and was then thoroughly denounced by subsequent generations for its “uncontrolled squandering of sentiment.” Today, as John Bowen points out, it is a novel that critics and readers tend to care less and less about, and indeed, it is a novel, that very few could even claim to be genuinely attached to.

Yet, The Old Curiosity Shop is a novel that at its very center, in its margins, between the lines, and beyond its pages, questions the extent to which curiosity— as an expression of care and attention—is necessarily a constituent part of our humanity. Following neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s claim that “consciousness and emotion are not separable . . . . and that when consciousness is impaired so is emotion” (16), I want to explore curiosity first, as a cognitive and affective state that possesses intentionality and influences action, and second, as a disposition that is a necessary precondition to compassion, that “painful emotion occasioned by the awareness of another person’s undeserved misfortune or suffering (Nussbaum 301). Though curiosity carries with it a kind of situational spontaneity, I am interested in its more deliberative function of cognitive appraisal in both activating and constraining emotion. The case of The Old Curiosity Shop is particularly apropos in my mind to the project of identifying an aspect of fictional mental functioning that has been thus far neglected in narrative theory: narrative inattention.

Using Theory of Mind (ToM), our evolved cognitive capacity to infer what other people are thinking, perceiving, or feeling (also known as “mindreading”), I want to begin to account for the failure of curiosity, the failure of a character to sustain a cognitive fix on something or someone within his/or her perceptual field of awareness. According to Lisa Zunshine, “applying ToM to our study of fiction is what makes literature as we know it possible. The very process of making sense of what we read appears to be grounded in our ability to invest the flimsy verbal constructions that we generously call ‘characters’ with a potential for a variety of thoughts, feelings, and desires and then to look for the ‘cues’ that would allow us to guess at their feelings and predict their actions” (10). In doing so, I investigate how the novel might trigger “narrative attachment disorder” by programming the cognitive machinery of both characters and readers to disengage. As these subjects navigate and negotiate their respective fictive and real-life environments, even we barely notice their inattention, their disaffection, their inability to feel compassion for, or even recognize the suffering bodies of others, thus challenging the claim that “that novels dispel obtuseness and awaken us to a range of ethical possibilities” (“Exactly and Responsibly” 359). ( . . . . )

B-Students (Michael Uebel)

This essay draws a great deal of its energy from the historical intersection of humanist psychology and education, as well as from a philosophically-oriented set of ecological insights whose elaboration by marine biologist Edward Ricketts in the 1930s and 1940s prefigures a later emphasis on “getting into contact” with lived realities. The humanist and Gestalt psychologists of the 1950s and 1960s—e. g., Paul Goodman, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls, and Carl Rogers—provided the intellectual as well as practical ground from which such important developments as “confluent education” and the “live classroom” sprang. This “live classroom,” as George Isaac Brown dubbed it, is predicated on the understanding of the whole (or Gestalt), on integrating emotion with cognition, on awareness (of self and other or object), and on experiencing through contact. What I will argue with respect to the shaping and flourishing of the B-student, or Being-student, is also founded on the Gestalt principle that learning about the world is only as important or as necessary as learning about how we prevent ourselves from doing so. So before exploring the meanings of terms and concepts such as confluent education and contact, I should emphasize that this essay itself, consistent with a Gestalt perspective, creates a need—the need for making change—at the same time that it interrogates possible obstacles to the natural emergence of this need. This double approach to need is the essence of what we might call B-learning.

That we are constantly preventing ourselves from learning, even while seemingly engaged in its pursuit, is perhaps the most dramatic consequence of when contact is neglected in favor of indirect modes of investigating, being, and doing. The physicist Victor Weisskopf describes a poignant encounter with the wonder that is generated by direct contact with an object of study. When Weisskopf was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Arizona at Tuscon, his enthusiasm for visiting the school was tied to his hope that he would be able to visit the Kitts Peak astronomical observatory. He was, however, duly informed that his wish to look at some objects through the telescope could not be granted because it was in constant use for photography and other research activities. Within days after declining the invitation, Weisskopf was told he would after all be able to look through the telescope:

We drove up the mountain on a wonderfully clear night. The stars and the Milky Way glistened intensely and seemed almost close enough to touch. I entered the cupola and told the technicians who ran the computer-activated telescope that I wanted to see Saturn and a number of the galaxies. It was a great pleasure to observe with my own eyes and with the utmost clarity all the details I had only seen on photographs before. As I looked at all that, I realized that the room had begun to fill with people, and one by one they too peeked into the telescope. I was told that these were astronomers attached to the observatory, but they had never before had the opportunity of looking directly at the objects of their investigations.  I can only hope that this encounter made them realize the importance of such direct contacts. (qtd. in Kabat-Zinn 186–87) 

A beautiful illustration of the emergence of a kind of live classroom, Weisskopf’s story reveals not only the value of contact but the way in which being “confluent,” being alive to both the affective and cognitive dimensions of the learning experience, produces an awareness of responsibility. Experiencing confluence means “being aware of, and taking responsibility for, yourself in relation to your experience and your context, people you’re interacting with, the topic and material you’re engaging in, group dynamics, and the environment” (J. Brown, “Confluent Education” xvi). While the classical definition of confluent education emphasizes the integration, the flowing together, of the emotional and the subject content elements of the educational experience so that both benefit from the relation to the other, George Isaac Brown was quite clear about what constitutes the dichotomy between the live classroom and the dead classroom. In short, this is the difference between education for biophiles and education for necrophiles (G. Brown, The Live Classroom 2).   

B-students are biophiles who adopt a receptive, nonjudgmental, and reflective attitude toward their objects of study, and, by doing this avoid “separation from Being,” as Heidegger would call it. George Kneller has translated this Heideggerian notion into the realm of education: “Knowledge acquired by treating things as targets of inquiry yields power over them and corrupts the knower. Exploited intellectually and then technologically, things become a ‘standing reserve’ from which humans extract maximum advantage with minimum effort” (Kneller 141). The consequences of not being mindfully present or in contact with the environment are grave: “Nature is despoiled, society disintegrates, and [we] no longer [are] the ‘shepherds of Being’” (Kneller 141). ( . . . . )