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Crisis in the Humanities

By John Hawkins  Posted by John Hawkins (about the submitter)       (Page 1 of 5 pages)   3 comments
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Crisis in the Humanities

By Louis Hammer

Note to Reader: Louis Hammer was a poet, philosopher and artist who headed the Philosophy department at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute during my brief post-graduate tenure there in the fall of 1986. I was a student in Hammer's philosophy seminar on Phenomenology. I recently discovered that he died on February 14, 2006. While I was at RPI, another student of Hammer's and I began gathering material to produce a philosophical/surrealist publication to be called The Hammer Smiles , in honor of our instructor. The publication never came to fruition, but a stand-out piece to have been included was Hammer's own reflective piece, titled "Crisis in the Humanities," which I am including here, along with a two or three poems from Hammer's collection, The Book of Games . I offer his words up here because I believe they are relevant to the precipice we face as a species now, and because I want to remember yet another courageous, creative mind that will have disappeared without a trace but for remembrances like this.

In the past it was easy to suppose that the reflection which occurs in the humanities gives insight into human nature and opens the world for lucidity, or that in the humanities we consider acts of expression that describe the phenomena of feeling and make evident a state of being.

What anyone might easily have overlooked is that scholarship in the humanities is not a simple uncovering of thought and expression or even a complex reconstruction of a body of reflection and feeling. It is itself an appropriation process that transforms whatever it touches, that leaves its mark on the material which it exhibits. How we think and how we feel are affected by scholarship because scholarship not only studies thinking and feeling but is itself composed of thinking and feeling. Something important in what we are studying cannot be brought into our fields of study as an object for investigation because it is itself part of the act of investigation. This is a situation reminiscent of the one presented in Heisenberg's celebrated Uncertainty Principle in quantum mechanics, where the act of investigation is shown to condition the possibility of knowledge.

Recently certain philosophers as well as literary and art critics have begun to see this strange situation with so much force that they have wondered aloud whether anything exterior to the appropriation process is ever being looked at. What if all the presumed external objects of our study instead belong to the act of investigation? Suppose that a reality which was assumed to be encountered in our investigations is instead constituted by them. If critical discourse does indeed take place, perhaps it is a discourse that only echoes other discourse and carries on a life of its own in which unintended reverberations can be heard by the attentive ear, reverberations which are the constant play of an underlying but unconscious movement that can never be directly presented.

It should come as no surprise that thought may have arrived at a vision of nothing but a world of signifiers. Look around you and what do you see but multifarious signs that seem to embody a single message: the signs themselves prevail? If the signs prevail then the things of the world are at a distance or, more than that, covered up, inaccessible, concealed by the very means which seem to offer us lucidity. As a result we are cut off from sensuous life, our life with the immediacy of things and other beings.

Just as Nature for modern science has become a function of scientific instrumentation, the world of the senses for humanistic understanding has become a function of our invented signs.

What we are left with is a kind of technology of signifiers which translates into our emotional life as the pursuit of a series of discrete pleasures without the possibility of a fundamental bond with the world. The missing bond we might call "joy." Lacking it, we are deprived of an integral life with the earth and we are unable to sustain ourselves with the richness that is in silence. Even our language often transforms itself into a sort of noise which does not allow us to hear what is essential to our human being. Our lives are expropriated by political and economic forces and we ourselves become a means for efficient production, a variety of technologies of pleasure. As consumers of our own products, we are isolated, solipsistic and fragmentary.

We see traditional boundaries between areas of thought and investigation dissolving because our hold on the relation between knowledge and the real world has weakened. The astonishing increase in information seems actually to weaken our understanding much the way a movie version of a stage play often weakens the emotional effectby providing scenes that distract us from the main point while demanding attention to their technical achievement. Fragmented disciplines of specialization have substituted themselves for the earlier domains of knowledge and being, such domains as the moral, the rational, the aesthetic and the sacred. Instead of expressing the wonder of the physical world, natural science has become technicized and subservient. The fragmentation of contemporary disciplines simply accumulates heaps of information whose human meaning cannot be directly elicited and there is no return route to the earlier domains. That meaning can only arise through a reflection which originates in our listening to the ancient rhythms of joy which have not entirely left our bodiesrhythms which belong to the earth, community and the awareness of the sacred. Although our institutions and the entire technological system seem to have a life of their own that ignores us, there are fissures where we may be able to insert our human perception of joy and so modify them.

The challenge of contemporary thought, then, is to think through a life without boundaries in which we cannot assume the existence of any clear and distinct domains. Each of the time-honored domains has faced radical questioning in our time yet each of them seems to arise in some region of our sensuous life and to provide a structure which mediates between our senses and intellect. Frequently there lies the tension between the great traditions of the humanities and the present situation. The humanities are particularly vulnerable because their role has been to open up reflection on our sensuous life. If that life has become truncated and questionable, those disciplines which illuminate it are thrust into crisis. We should not, however, necessarily regard the condition of crisis as a negative one. When areas of our lives become questionable we are given an opportunity to think more adequately about what is fundamental to being human. Indeed, the act of questioning itself may be the one which is most characteristically human.

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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