Betsy McCormick (

Mount San Antonio College

Southeastern Medieval Association, October 2006

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

The Love Below, or, The Logic of a Humanist Practice (with apologies to Outkast and others)

I’m going to start with a straightforward question: why can’t the humanities be more humane? Unfortunately, this question seems to sound both simplistic and simple – the sort of liberal secularism a humanities professor proposes as variant of Rodney King’s “Why can’t we all get along?”. But this is a more meta-critical inquiry than it might at first seem, since the question infers a hierarchy of issues from questions about  the professoriate itself (i.e. why is the job process in the humanities so non-humane?) to questions about nature of what we teach (why is literature/humanities important within the modern system of higher education?) to the question of what is our role in the larger world (why should the larger world be interested in what we have to say)? I would like to direct my remarks today to the connections between these questions in large part prompted by the fact that when the world’s stage gets ugly, violent and non-humane, the last place it, or we, seem to turn is to the humanities, to the humanists. We do, however, turn to the humane – but through the venue of popular culture far more often than through what might be called the intelligentsia.

I was thinking about this presentation while at my last conference, the New Chaucer Society in NYC this past July (as always a good spot to ponder why humanists aren’t always very nice or humane to each other). Israel had just invaded Lebanon and the NY Times had an article about the impact on Beirut, mentioning in passing that Anthony Bourdain was in Beirut when the attack began, filming an episode for his Travel Channel series, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. Bourdain had been in Beirut less than 48 hours when the bombing began; he was trapped along with his crew for the next week until Americans were finally evacuated. Bourdain and crew put together a version of his show depicting what happened which The Travel Channel aired in early September. It was easily one of the most moving, humane hours of television I have ever seen (a reaction echoed by many posters to the show’s website). Bourdain is known for his snarky, cynical, aggressive personality and his “no holds barred” approach to food, restaurants and now, via his show, travel. In particular, his initial appeal was in his willingness to eat anything, particularly the kind of organ meats the average American finds disgusting. [Alton Brown’s comment on fried brain sandwiches]. Over the course of three show seasons (one on Food Network, two on the Travel Channel), Bourdain has developed into a cultural commentator on food and its place in the world. (i.e. the shows from the latest season depicted his evolving respect and love for South Korea, its people and its food.)

But the Beirut episode was of another caliber – and an insight into the events in Beirut which was unavailable via any other American resource (again an echoing refrain in website posts). The episode was foregrounded in what has become Bourdain’s ethos: that food is what brings people together, forms a society, and informs a culture. The initial footage shot at a Beirut restaurant would be the only typical part of the episode; the rest was the week-long wait with the “Cleaner” in the luxury hotel, followed by evacuation on the USS Nashville (where the gourmet was thrilled to see macaroni and cheese) and his sincere respect and admiration for the humanity of the US Marines and of the Lebanese people they were rapidly leaving behind. But why am I telling you this? Because of Bourdain’s final commentary: that his belief in the ability of food, when shared by people sitting around a table, to bring us together had been shattered, in ways he had yet to understand and articulate.

Why is it that such a public statement of humane, and to use a word Eileen has introduced to our larger discussion, loving, humanism came from a television chef? I am not asking this question to put Bourdain down, but rather to make us consider why we, the humanists, don’t even seem to be on the playing field. Certainly, there is an anti-intellectual bias in American culture, a bias which is not particularly new, In his Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (which won the 1964 Pulitzer Prize) Richard Hofstadter traces such a bias to forces like utilitarianism and religion – forces no less prevalent or powerful today than they were then. This past week Stanley Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, wrote an editorial for the Chronicle entitled “What has Happened to the Professoriate?”. Katz observes “I have become convinced that our most profound problems have to do with our unwillingness to inquire into our own situation.”  I agree that any critical inquiry must also be one of self-inquiry. Toril Moi has quite astutely observed of feminism that “ A truly critical … account of feminism, then, would be one which also reflects on the social conditions of possibility of feminist discourse. Or in other words: feminism as critique must also be a critique of feminism” (Appropriating Bourdieu, 279). But perhaps we can reverse this process as we approach a consideration of humanism/s: a critique of humanism might also produce a humanism as critique – a  critique , I would suggest, that is more in the pursuit of inquiry than criticism.

As a medievalist, I spend much of my time researching and studying debate; as a professor, I spend much of my time teaching and encouraging debate. It is not lost on me that the very thing I study in medieval culture, how the dialectical debate about Woman produces a form of stasis and entropy, is so dominant in contemporary culture. This idea of debate as a polarized dialectic seems endemic, even innate, to our way of seeing the world. Deborah Tannen’s book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words, outlines the corrosive nature of this “public agonism” in politics, media, law, gender and, yes, the academy itself. Tannen’s critique of the academy is brief but astute – focusing in particular on how it is institutionalized not only by graduate education, but by professional practices of conference presentations and publications. [nb Christine de Pizan/Babel’s aims] The danger in this dichotomous dynamic is summed up by Tannen early on in the book, “When a problem is posed in a way that polarizes, the solution is often obscured before the search is under way”(21).

Tannen briefly outlines the role of dialectic in the medieval university, more as a means of showing its long duree in Western culture. And she is not wrong. But as many others do, she overlooks that there was more than one form of medieval debate.  In her discussion of medieval dialectic, Contrary Things: Exegesis, Dialectic, and the Poetics of Didacticism, Catherine Brown explains that certain medieval texts encouraged a reception practice grounded in contradiction. Such “metadidactic reflections” act out the conceptual ideal of the dialectical either/or simultaneously with the more exegetical both/and in order to teach the reader the praxis of critical thought. Such texts are “characterized not just by contrary things but by the teaching of contrary things.” As she suggests, “Much is to be gained, too, if we read our texts and the weaving of their oppositions intimately, attentive as much to the performative-- how they teach -- as to the constantive -- what they teach.” Brown suggests that such paradoxical praxis is not an “obstacle to understanding,” but rather a “hermeneutic irritant” that serves as “one of the very conditions for the production of knowledge and understanding.”

This idea of a theoretical praxis grounded in multiple logical systems could be a very productive paradigm for what we do as humanists. Yet, for the contemporary scholar this idea of both/and raises the specter of relativism. Such an association could not be further from the medieval conception of the world, one which would certainly not agree with the relativistic premise that one viewpoint is not uniquely privileged over others. Indeed, Brown calls such both/and thinking exegetical in the sense that it comes from the conception of the trinity: God is not either one or three, but rather triune, both one and three. (Of course, this raises the other spector of contemporary conflict: religion.) Why I think such a praxis is important is in this very ability to embrace contradiction, paradox, complexity and ambiguity, an ability that is so lacking in our contemporary worldview of polarized division. Sadly, it seems that this ability is often lacking in the praxis of contemporary humanities (consider for example just the title of the essay “Can Humanists Talk to Postmodernists?” – yet another agonistic duality).

But what if the fundamentals of humanistic practice, reading, teaching, theorizing, thinking, were approached as just that, a praxis for the production of knowledge, and of the humane.  A logical, humanistic praxis that incorporates all, rather than dividing into two. Tannen posits something as simple as “we could all thy to catch ourselves when we talk about ‘both sides’ of an issue – and talk instead about ‘all sides’.” But I think as humanists we could do more.

In the Middle Ages, one of the roles of what we now call the humanities was invention: invention of knowledge, of ethics, of self. Mary Carruthers outlines how memory, one of the fundamentals of rhetoric, was used to “invent” the self’s knowledge. In his Ethical Poetic of the Later Middles Ages, Judson Allen notes that in the medieval conception of poetry, there is no real category for literature; rather poetry and literature are categorized under the rubric “ethics.” He explains that “to define ethics in medieval terms is to define poetry, and to define poetry is to define ethics, because medieval ethics was so much under the influence of a literary paideia as to be enacted poetry and poetry was so practically received as to be quite directly the extended examples for real behaviour.” That is literature is an action, a practice of ethical reality.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues against the current association of reading with passivity, noting that the process of reading meaning is little understood or studied. Yet isn’t that what humanities are: the reading of meaning, of life? And if these are so little understood, how do we make them understandable? It seems we have to begin by better understanding our own role in humanistic practice. It’s not either us or the television chef; after all, Anthony Bourdain is just enacting a humanist praxis through food. Donna Haraway has said of feminism, that “feminist inquiry is about understanding how things work, who is in the action, what might be possible, and how worldly actors might somehow be accountable to and love each other less violently” (“Companion Species Manifesto”).  A sentiment which should be applied to all humanisms – in other words, we need to move past our own praxis of dialectic to show a culture mired in dichotomies how to move beyond to the love below.