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A Confession of Faith: Notes Toward a New Humanism

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 37, Number 2, Summer 2007
pp. 161-190 | 10.1353/jnt.2008.0007

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

"To dwell in the ruins of the University is to try to do what we can, while leaving space for what we cannot envisage to emerge . . . [and] resources liberated by the opening up of disciplinary space, be it under the rubric of the humanities or of Cultural Studies, should be channeled into supporting short-term collaborative projects of both teaching and research (to speak in familiar terms) which would be abandoned after a certain period, whatever their success."

—Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (176)

"This will no doubt be like a profession of faith: the profession of faith of a professor who would act as if he were nevertheless asking your permission to be unfaithful or a traitor to his habitual practice."

—Jacques Derrida,"The University Without Condition" (202)

In his important book The University in Ruins, published two years after his untimely death in 1994, Bill Readings argued that, partly due to a certain state of affairs which he termed both "Americanization" and "globalization," whereby "the rule of the cash nexus" has replaced "the notion of national identity as a determinant in all aspects of social life," the University has become a "transnational bureaucratic corporation" and "the centrality of the traditional humanistic disciplines to the life of the University is no longer assured" (3). Further, the University "is no longer linked to the destiny of the nation-state by virtue of its role as producer, protector, and inculcator of an idea of national culture," and as a result, "the grand narrative of the University, centered on the production of a liberal, reasoning subject, is no longer available to us" (3, 9). Ultimately, the University is "a ruined institution, one that lost its historical raison d'etre," but which nevertheless "opens up a space in which it is possible to think the notion of community otherwise, without recourse to notions of unity, consensus, and communication" (19, 20). This is a space, moreover, where the University "becomes one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question" (20).

Although Readings' argument in The University in Ruins has been subject to carefully considered counter-critique, it remains today, we would argue, a powerful spur to thought and action for those working within the academy who are concerned with the future of humanistic teaching and scholarship. One could say, as we do, that Readings' emphasis on (and hope for) the University as "one site among others where the question of being-together is raised" is an emphasis (and hope) that is under a certain pressure from work within the humanities, social sciences, and sciences on posthumanism, post-individual personhood, and even, post-histoire. For before we can even begin to raise the question of being-together we must first raise the question of the being that could find or wish itself with others, and to what end? In her classical defense of a reform in liberal education that would emphasize global citizenship and a deep sensitivity to and embrace of human diversity, Cultivating Humanity, Martha Nussbaum argues that becoming an educated citizen means, in addition to "mastering techniques of reason," also "learning how to be a human being capable of love and imagination" (14). But how can this singular human being to whom Nussbaum refers situate herself in a world where, as the philosopher of religion John Caputo writes, "one has lost one's faith in grand récits," and "[b]eing, presence, ouisa, the transcendental signified, History, Man—the list goes on—have all become dreams?" (6). For Caputo, "we are in a fix, except that even to say 'we' is to get into a still deeper fix. We are in the fix that cannot say 'we'," and yet, "the obligation of me to you and of both of us to others . . . is all around us, on every side, constantly tugging at our sleeves, calling upon us for a response" (6).

For those of us who work within the humanities in the public (or private) university setting, the question of obligation can weigh...