Justin Brent (jbrent@presby.edu)

Presbyterian College (South Carolina)

41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2006

BABEL Panel: Medieval to Modern Humanisms


A Response

Can we just agree that what unites all five of these posthuman projects is a transcendence of time? We all believe that in coming to understand the crisis de rigeur, the academy, theory, genocide, military occupation, somehow the past informs the present.

In this sense, we literary historians descend from a long line of thinkers who believed their project was not merely the construction and dissemination of an historical record, but more importantly the improvement of mankind. Thucydides, thus, wrote his history of the Peloponnesian  War  not just to give an account of those particular battles. He believed that the only way he could provide deep insight into the nature of human existence was via a detailed history of that war. Likewise, Chaucer writes his history of Troilus and Criseyde not to document the fall of Troy, but rather to bear witness to the transformative power of love (eat your heart out Jonathan Lear). On and on we could go with our list of historians reenacting the past to better the Present, to explore Subjectivity, or to chart what Jeffrey Cohen calls “the open-ended movements of becoming” (Medieval Identity Machines 3). Medievalists are quick to note the Alterity of our amorphous period, yet we are equally committed to souding it for the known.

For the rest of my presentation, I’d like to show you another Other—one similarly imbued with distance, crisis and post-humanism. Lu Hsun is known today as the father of modern Chinese Literature, but in his youth he trained in Japan to be a doctor. His career in medicine, however, lost its urgency when Hsun decided that China’s ailments were not of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one. In recalling his attitude toward the people of China, Hsun writes, “The most important thing was to change their spirit, and since at that time I felt that literature was the best means to this end, I determined to promote a literary movement. There were many Chinese students in Tokyo studying law, political science, physics and chemistry, even police work and engineering, but not one studying literature or art” (3). Like Lu Hsun, we find ourselves today lamenting the obscurity of history, literature and art in matters of current affairs. Yet this father of Chinese literature made people stop and listen. How did Lu Hsun transform the consciousness of modern-day China? Translation of the classics. No Joke! That’s what he did! Of course after a few years of reading and translating, in Caedmonesque fashion, Lu Hsun begins to write about the modern Chinese condition, in some of the most celebrated language our world has ever known. The point is not that humanists – we architects of “the Third Culture” – need take up laptop and begin composing short stories; rather, that political, economic, and scientific enclaves of power have a way of recalling us back into the classroom, having just dismissed us for idle chatter. Let us hope that the Third Culture turns out to be what Gloria Origgi calls a “multidimensional culture, where explanations originating in different disciplines combine together without cancelling one another.” If so, I have little doubt that the deliberations we’ve just heard are “the crack cocaine of the thinking world” (qtd. in Pinker).

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Medieval Identity Machines. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2002.

Hsun, Lu. Lu Hsun: Selected Stories. Trans. Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. New York: Norton, 2003.

Origgi, Gloria. “WHO'S AFRAID OF THE THIRD CULTURE?” 1 May 2006. The Edge. 3 May 2006. <http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/origgi06/origgi06_index.html>

Pinker, Stephen. “What is Your Dangerous Idea?” The World Question Center. Ed. John Brockman. The Edge. 3 May 2006. <http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_index.html>