Craig Dionne (

Eastern Michigan University (Editor, Journal of Narrative Theory)

41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2006

BABEL Panel: Medieval to Modern Humanisms


Between Appreciation and Historicism: Is It Possible to Articulate an Historically Engaged Aesthetics?


 “For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground

And tell sad stories of the death of kings…”

            I am interested in the political uses of humanism, and how it is often seen to be on the wane by people who like to point fingers at the legacy of new historicism (and anti-humanism). As much as I disagree with people who want to pillory anti-humanism as the cause for our present “crisis”--however this is defined or perceived--I do agree we are living fairly strange times, especially if you live and work in an English department like mine where people cry about the demise of literacy while systematically undoing their literature curriculum in order to staff service programs like technical writing (but this an old story). As a result, I see literary humanists responding to such trends by reaching out to defend their study within traditional frameworks. The ideological contradiction at the heart of contemporary humanism’s “multi-cultural” model of literacy (or its alternative, literature as a catalyst for ethical self-awareness, say, following Martha Nussbaum) is that it mobilizes the mimetic theory of art to rationalize the literary texts as a window into social difference (race, gender, class, etc.). And while many humanists today might not see this as a problem or concern, we would have to admit that at the very least this unchallenged mimeticism flies in the face of the theory we teach in our literary criticism classes. Or, to put it another way, we could be taken to task for reinforcing with one hand a static view of history that subtly legitimates social inequalities as “natural” and endemic to history, while calling for the critical deconstruction of such ideologies with the other hand in our research and in our grad seminars. This is probably not a new a problem as I find it (and I hear in the back of my head as I write this a replay of the late 80’s early 90’s debates about strategic essentialism….)

So, for me, this paradox is crucial--what motors it, what is it a symptom of? What results, then, from this dialectic at the heart of our humanism? How can we discuss this as a symptom of a larger history: of humanism’s legacy? Of a gap in the “use value” of humanism generally at this stage of western history(ies)? How does this conversation resemble other gaps in humanism from other periods? Are we comfortable reinforcing mimesis in our undergraduate appreciation classes, while reinforcing another type of critical awareness in our upper-level and grad classes? Is this just a strategy we use? Or does such a split reinforce a elitism between literature and theory that it is the goal of humanism--at least for me--to challenge. Does this contradiction make humanism today distinct, say, from other earlier forms? How can we think of other chapters in the history of humanism that tell us about the functional “uses” of humanist literacy vs. its radical potential? What about the conflict between Renaissance English humanism, which emphasized the technique of copying aphorisms into individualized “commonplace books” to reinforce rote memory to self-fashion, climb social hierarchies, and serve the state. This technique flew in the face of other techniques, like the rhetorical technique of in utramque partem, which asked writers to probe the depths of social issues by examining two, antithetical positions of the problem. While rote literacy reinforced service in the court, rhetoric in this vein lead to some of the most radical challenges to early modern absolutism. What, finally, do these other chapters in the history of humanism tell us about the dialectical “pull” of our own moment? 

I will end by noting the parallels between early and contemporary humanisms--especially, in contemporary pedagogical approaches to literature that aestheticize the ambivalence of the early modern art and literature as an inherent pluralism; that is, teaching students that real or true literary texts empower critical reflection through moments of ambiguity in representation.  This, I would say, is the ideological "mission" of a new elitism that wants to rationalize its idea of a "living-text aesthetics" that brooks no argument with the instrumental corporate discourse against literature.  In response to the professional managerial class’s call for “excellence” and “strategy” in the humanities, the new aesthetic movement in literature, or the "turn to ethics" as it is sometimes noted, creates a kind of Victorian pseudo-aristocratic identity that can reclaim a more energized retake of aesthetic engagement--as if to suggestion, “okay, ‘literature,’ but this time with feeling”--as an escape from the instrumental world that is intimated in the new historicism’s “situating” the text in its local and political moment.  But this is a rear-guard if not wholesale retrenchment of the worst abuses of formalist myopia, for surely we can find a way to articulate a textual appreciation that does not turn its nose so completely from the critical reflection involved in historicizing texts.  We don’t have to read the text as an allegory of stable and essential categories of truth from the our present moment, through Kant, Levinas, Heidegger, etc. while avoiding the challenge of structuralism as if it didn't happen.   (Although, you have to admire the brio).  Such performances are a ghostly equivalent of the Renaissance emphasis on linguistic display as a vehicle for self-presentation: marshalling the radical potential of humanism for an elitist celebration of the Self and its mastery of the object world.  This literacy may have jarred the strictures of patrician culture in the sixteenth century, but today its close reading of figurative tropes through philosophical discourse reconstitutes a rear-guard humanism that appears arrogant about its decision to avoid questions of textual politics.

This, for me, is the "moment" of contemporary humanism that begs the question, what next?  There are no easy solutions, but for me I am happy to teach literature as a reflex of cultural pluralism--how to prize texts that are plural, how to deconstruct monological texts into polyvalent ones, to discover how moments of history provide occasions for writers to puzzle through human antinomies from special vantage points that are unique to time and place as much as voice.  This ultimately fights the local battle of producing readers who can resist the new evangelical right and its hegemony, while also inculcating the value of appreciating literatures that represent multiple and competing voices.  But we have to acknowledge that this aesthetics is located in our practice, our institutions.  To locate this "pluralism" in the text as a source—a text mystified “in itself” as the singular source of the pluralist ethics we seek, of the culture we want to build--reproduces a metaphysical reverence for the text, not a critical appreciation.   And like the Renaissance humanism of the sixteenth century, such a move might appear to break free the confines of the business class’s vision of the humanities, or historicism’s cynical detachment from aesthetics, but the theoretically silent return to aesthetics may eerily parallel in its reverence for the art-text the ideology or inner logic of a theocracy’s emphasis on textual literalism.