I opened and chaired one of the Being Human events at the University of Birmingham last week, a roundtable about the experience of teaching and practicing Humanities work in the city. I helped out with some of the organising, but I have to say a big thank you again to my colleagues Charlotta Salmi and Zara Dinnen for all of their work in bringing the event together.
I thought I'd share my opening comments below. I wanted to capture some of the oddness of me opening an event about the humanities and being human when I'm most interested in posthuman philosophy, in not putting humans automatically first, in not privileging human perspectives on the world, in not thinking that "humanity" is a neat and fixed category. I still care about people, of course, and my politics is only subtly posthuman (largely humanist in my socialism - though I'm certainly interested in the ways in which posthuman approaches to the coherency of what it means to be human can play into progressive and socially just politics - and strongly posthuman in my ecological stance). So how to combine a care for people with posthuman concerns? The below is only a tentative step in that direction; I only had 7 minutes and the event had nothing to do with my research, but instead showcased some of the fantastic work being created in and about Birmingham. But I also want to do this more, to ensure that my statements about the humanities, and the human, don't slip into a humanist triumphalism that has little to do with what I actually think, whilst also wanting to remain an advocate for the importance and value of humanities study.
Welcome everyone, and thank you for coming out on a Saturday to talk about humans and the Humanities. And a huge thank you to Zara and Charlotta for organising this event. I’ve tried to help out where I can, but they are certainly the reason that we’ve all been able to get together in a room today to meet, and discuss, and to share our thoughts and practices, something which I hope that we can continue to do a lot more of at events to come, at meetings which again cross over the academic and public institutions, collectives, and individuals of this city. Because it’s important to share these kinds of things, not least so that we don’t feel so alone, as researchers, as creative people, as people at all. And so I’m really happy to get to be a part of things today, and to start us off with a couple of ideas about being human and the work of the Humanities.
This event is part of the festival of the Humanities. That festival unites a wide variety of talks and seminars and exhibitions under what is meant to be at once a faintly grand and importantly mundane title: “Being Human.” The festival of the Humanities, however sceptical I can sometimes be about this title, and I’ll come back to that in a second, the festival is all about discussing the ways in which the Humanities, the practices, study, and distinctive methods of studying arts and cultures, the Humanities are for everyone. The Humanities are about daily life, are about building other ways of thinking and acting into daily experience. About making the process of living richer.
It’s a festival, then, not just of being human, but of being a better human. Not in a Victorian sense, necessarily, of good art making us better, more moral, more ethical beings, not about self-improvement, but rather about the availability of better experiences – the chance to have a better life through methods beyond what money might neatly pin down. A life with the work of the Humanities is richer – more thought through, more thought about, with a sense of heritage and possible futures; with a sense of what might be supported and what might be resisted. A life with the Humanities is about expanding the horizon of the possible.
In this, and so many other ways, the Humanities are not at odds with the sciences, but they go about changing what we believe to be conceivable in a different way. The Humanities don’t give us artefacts; they reveal powers. Engineering gave us the printing press; the Humanities gave us the novel. The full might of the sciences gave us the car, the road, petrol, and the CD player; the Humanities gave us the highway, the foot to the floor, the sunset, and the lights of the beckoning city.
To return to my scepticism, I do worry that the idea of using the Humanities to be more human can become reduced, sometimes, to there being only one good way to be a human, and then various shades of allowing other ways of being – an encouraging of sympathy for those who can’t be human in quite the right way. To parody this stance, it’s the stance that says “I’m so enlightened that I don’t judge you for not being able to think or act like me, I’m just sorry that you can’t because of your race, or religion, or disability, or sexuality.” This is when political correctness really goes wrong: not when it’s used as a tool to raise awareness and to fight against discrimination, but when, instead, it fosters a particular sympathy, a becoming aware of the “plight” of minority voices in a society and wondering not how they might be amplified, but instead how they might be absorbed. It can seem that the easiest ways to be rid of this awkward sympathy is to try and work for everyone to be the same. And it seems a waste of the Humanities to be put to work on an impossible task.
Some of the most vital work, to my mind, is not sympathetic – “I’m sorry you’re in pain” – and it’s not empathetic – “I feel you’re pain” – it’s compassionate – “how can I help?” (inspired by comments HERE).
A sympathetic Humanities, at its worst, assumes neatness and asks: “how can I make you more like me, how can I make you more human?” An empathetic Humanities is far better and asks “how can I best understand you, how can I understand your humanity?” But I’m in favour of a compassionate Humanities: “how can I help you be you, how can I support your humanity?”
For this reason, I’d kill for an “s” on the end of the festival name: “being humans” - just a hint at polysemy and pluralism. Because I’m deeply sceptical that there’s just one way to be human, to do the act of humaning. I’d probably open the category up pretty wide – the human is just that which humans, and to human, to do some daily act of human-ing, is really to identify with other beings which themselves identify as human – a mass consensus or co-creation rather than some innate alliance with a coherent, let alone fixed, ideal.
No two bodies neatly alike; no two sexes always able to produce viable offspring; no psychologies independent of culture; no chemical compositions independent of the foods made available by the political structures of the day; no human spirit; no inviolable ethics; just bonds of affinity largely arrayed around more or less compatible genitals.
I’m exaggerating, a little, of course. There are biological similarities that we can’t, and shouldn’t ignore, but the Humanities, in part, is interested in the ways in which this might be the least of the things that makes us what we are.
Part of the reason that this festival, and events like this, are important, is that even a compassionate Humanities can be complacent, at times, about its duty of relevance. I know that many literature staff and students, myself included, have sometimes taken it as a badge of honour that what we do isn't useful in some quantifiable sense, and I still adore the fact that you can't measure in pounds and pence the effect that studying art and culture has on a society. But this means that we do have to be able to defend ourselves.
The Humanities have become increasingly lax at articulating exactly what they offer, and this resulted, during the swathes of swingeing cuts that we've seen to higher education budgets over the last few years, in a litany of public statements attempting to say why the Humanities still matter at a time where the Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics can more readily articulate their worth to the State. I guess we do ourselves no favours in that one of the main arguments for our necessity is that we analyse the language, discourses, and effects of power, of hegemony, of ideology - we've long questioned the very sorts of policies which would attack us; we've often revelled in being heretical; and we like asking difficult questions of people in charge.
We’ve been forced to somehow be able to have the conversation about keeping the Humanities relevant in the 21st century without being accused of, or falling prey, to philistinism. Can we remain relevant and explain our relevance whist simultaneously critiquing forces which use that word “relevance” to mean “normative” or “appropriate for late capitalism”? How, in short, does the Humanities makes its case without becoming complicit with a state which so forgot its importance that it demanded that a case be made?
Part of that Humanities work is easy, however, and will be present today – show; don’t tell.
Show the Humanities in action; show its effects, its uses, its charms; show how it helps humans as they go about their various human-ings. Don’t try and find the language to describe its use, but revel in its useful practices.
So, again, thank you for coming today, to speak with some other people who identify as humans and to hear about some practices of being a human in Birmingham, practices which actively demonstrate the relevance of Humanities work far better than the language of any defensive stance ever could.