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: “The Future of the Humanities and the Problem of Instrumental Reason” The 2011-2012 Amherst College Copeland Colloquium seeks four or five Fellows from varied disciplines to explore the theme of "The Future of the Humanities and the Problem of Instrumental Reason." We are seeking applications from both senior and junior scholars from the various disciplines of the humanities and humanistic social sciences. We welcome literary scholars, historians, sociologists, philosophers, legal scholars, and others whose work illuminates, directly or indirectly, the situation of the humanities under conditions where an emphasis on efficiency and effectiveness, practicality and usefulness, and activity and applicability seem to have rendered extraneous many of the basic commitments of the humanities disciplines. We are especially interested in projects that advance new visions of the humanities, exemplify reimagined roles for humanistic scholarship, and as such imply responses to the question of the humanities’ future. We want to use various kinds of humanities scholarship to explore such questions as: What, exactly, do we mean by the humanities? What is the role and mission of the humanities in our era? What set or sets of historical forces permitted it come into being and to maintain itself at various moments and under different conditions? In what terms has the question of the “the future of the humanities” been posed in the past? How has the question of the future of the humanities changed today, under the pressure of instrumentality and for reasons as different as the emergence of the digital humanities, the mapping of the human genome, and the ongoing economic crisis? In “Farfetchings: on and in the sf mode” (Ph.D., 2010), I address two concerns that are for me inextricably entangled: science fiction (sf) as a way of thinking about the world and radical ecological ethics. “Farfetching”, a term coined by sf writer Ursula K. Le Guin, refers to the skill of arriving at intuitive perceptions of moral entireties. Using metaphors rather than rational symbols, farfetching offers a way to investigate and express new forms of ecological ethics and practices in this world that is, alas, the case. Given the deep roots of human exceptionalism in globalizing Euro-American societies, it will – I argue – take a lot more than a few alternative energy sources to change our trajectory, to bring the human species and much of the other life on Earth back from the brink of extinction. Indeed, while we may applaud and support the efforts of planetary humanism – a practical philosophy that seeks to extend rights or respect to all humans, regardless of creed, color, ability, sex, sexual orientation or gender –, exploring what I call "The Human Conditional" involves going beyond humanism and delving into the ecology of everyday life in hopes of articulating new ways of relating with not only other plants, animals, and microbes, but also with those material things that are the basis of all life and those mutable ideas that are the basis of all thought. In this project, I propose to both explore and experiment with the discourse around being human in contemporary Euro-American societies. While an important
conceit of anthropocentric worlding is that the “human” remain an unmarked category, recent work in what Cary Wolfe calls “posthumanist” theory has called attention to the ways that the human is either defined through essential or primary qualities (e.g. the Christian soul, the Cartesian cogito, Hegelian reason, etc.) or – and perhaps more importantly – defined against its others, including not only other animals but also those humans considered somehow less than human: the slave, the woman, the person of color, the disabled, etc. Indeed, while the vague epithet “nonhuman” may be useful and even necessary for scholars concerned with anthropocentrism, it actually serves to reinforce rather than undermine the illusion of an unmarked and unchanging human condition. To remedy this, I advocate turning away from an indicative or imperative “human” and embracing instead a conditional one. Unlike the indicative – which claims to represent reality – or the imperative – which aims to make it so – the conditional is hypothetical, uncertain, and contingent, yielding the title of the current project: “The Human Conditional”. Drawing on the work of scholars in science and technology studies, science fiction studies, animal studies, and ecological ethics, “The Human Conditional” is devoted to interdisciplinarity, to multiple ways of knowing and expressing that knowledge. The work of philosophers, historians, and anthropologists of science like Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Karen Barad, for example, have much to teach us about the relations that knot together humans, things, theories, and other widgets; similarly, animal studies scholars like Donna Haraway, Myra Hird, and Vinciane Despret offer deep engagements with the different critters that make being and becoming human possible. As for thinking ecological ethics, I am interested in engaging not only the traditions of ecocriticism, deep ecology, and ecofeminism in general, but also and especially the innovative work being done by scholars like David Abram and Timothy Morton. But the field which has perhaps the longest tradition of engaging with the question of being human is most certainly sf scholarship: for tales and theories of making first contact with aliens and of becoming human otherwise, I turn especially to sf theoristpractitioners like Gwyneth Jones, Ken Macleod, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany. These various scholars, artists, fields and disciplines not only provide new ways of thinking about humans and humanism, but they also offer vivid examples for what it means to practice humanistic scholarship differently, opening up new futures for the humanities more generally. Indeed, while it owes much to critiques of anthropocentrism and the category of the human in continental philosophy, in feminist theory, and in critical race theory, “The Human Conditional” is as much a creative project as a critical one. Indeed, it is arguably the creative and not the critical potential of humanistic scholarship that poses the greatest threat to the ongoing process of instrumentalizing the humanities and education more generally. Turning towards the futures rather than the pasts, I aim here to extend the scope and range of the experimental writing I undertook in my dissertation, “Farfetchings”. Given that – from Aesop to Montaigne, from Kant to T. S. Eliot – writing itself has been a defining element in both the humanist tradition, any deep engagement with the human conditional should look to generating new approaches to writing. Indeed, in “The Human Conditional” I not only advocate but also practice a very different way of producing knowledge, one that takes place at the intersection of science fiction, speculative philosophy, and radical ecological ethics. This means not only
embracing new forms and venues for scholarly work – as in the burgeoning fields of new media studies and the digital humanities – but also experimenting with the generic conventions of academic writing itself. To the conditional human, then, we might add the “conditional humanities”, a practice-led approach that extends interdisciplinary thinking beyond its now traditional bounds, allowing both “art” and “science” to fundamentally alter the practice of humanistic knowledge. Given its commitment to promoting innovative work in the humanities, I can think of no better place than this year's Amherst College Copeland Colloquium to undertake “The Human Conditional”. Framing the current situation in the humanities as a crisis might, I argue, keep us from seeing the opportunity we are being offered, an opportunity to rethink, rewrite, and reinvent the humanities in a time when traditional ways of thinking, writing, teaching, and learning will no longer work. I would be greatly honored to join you and other scholars in exploring the possibilities inherent in this opportunity.
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