- Writing Against the Human in the Humanities
Amid the wailing and chest beating about the decline of humanities enrollments, I have sometimes wondered: What do we do about the centrality of the human to the humanities? What, I want to know, does the apparent decline of humanistic education, of a guaranteed undergraduate consumer base, and the retrenchment of such modes of aesthetic criticism as formalism, the new formalism, the lauding of close reading as analysis in fields like (English) literature, have to do with our moment of ecological collapse? Will the looming possibility that capitalism, with all its concomitant racial inequities, its slaughter of indigenous life, its implication in the production of both slavery and slavery's afterlives, has created unstoppable conditions for the end of human life as we know it change humanities methodologies, ever?
I realize that it's not the job of literature to save the world. Yet if we take seriously the idea that the ideology of human exceptionalism has wrought its own form of material, economic, racial, ecological, and animal injustice over the last half millennium or so, and if, further, we take seriously the interventions [End Page 875] that scholars in the environmental humanities, Black studies, Native studies, queer theory, and in the multiple new materialisms and posthumanisms, and in particular, from feminist science and technology studies (never mind the critiques of the putatively universal but usually depressingly and unsurprisingly specific human subject of modern and Enlightenment thought developed in postcolonial theory over the last five decades), have brought to the question of the human in all its racialized and gendered violences, what does the reentrenchment of and mourning for abstraction, formalization, and disciplinarity at this moment in time have to do with, well, this moment in time?
What does the idea and project of producing human exceptionalism, in short, have to do with the human in the humanities? I ask this question sincerely, but not without a pointed and simmering sense of ire, as an interdisciplinarian deeply committed to the methodologies and strategies of minoritarian knowledge, which I learned as I migrated away from the (sometimes) seemingly apolitical aesthetic investments of (some) English departments, and into the archives and critical frames in which I found the objects and questions that moved me most.
The four books under review do not quite ask these same questions, and in fact each is fascinatingly different from the others, but they all also circle around the challenges of the human at the heart of the arts, humanities, and science, and they all engage literature as one form of evidence among others. They do so via interdisciplinary methods borrowed from recent theoretical waves that engage science and the nonhuman world—variously, other nonhuman species, matter, antiracist appropriations of and engagements with humanist and scientific discourse, or philosophical, aesthetic, and political work produced by those barely human peoples whose claim to human subjectivity flickers in the historical archive without ever alighting on the right to be humans. That this important interdisciplinary work emerges in conversation with science and technology studies is not surprising; whether in the name of Black studies and queer theory, speculative realism, affect theory, new materialism, animal studies, or the environmental humanities, the turn to thinking with the sciences, and with the question of matter, underlies much critical interdisciplinary work today.
Contextualizing this shift over the last two decades or so (even if we were to...