Never Too Late: Mediation and the Humanities

Written by Sharanya Dutta

As I write this blog post (a fairly transient form as far as writing goes), I’ve been thinking a lot about a piece by Merve Emre on the personal essay. In a rather brutal review of a novel, she identifies a trend in contemporary writing—“the eager transposition of the aesthetic into the ethical”. This gimmicky, self-indulgent writing is predicated on the assumption that to be “messy” and “breathless” and to lay claim to identity is the best we can do in a messed-up and contradictory world. This is our ethical imperative as writers and people in the humanities.

What, then, is the work of the humanities? Do we “reduce it” to “work” aka labor? This question signals “suspicion”—a method seemingly innate to the humanities. As scholars of the humanities, we doubt, we critique, we problematize—because the scope of our concerns are so vast, we could not possibly offer a “realistic”, worldly, effective solution! And which of us would want to be associated with the stench of being uncritical? Any solution is deemed too reductive, and so we endlessly critique. This, in my reading, is the crisis at the heart of the humanities.

In the current academic landscape, this crisis has birthed the field of “postcritique”. It originated as an effort to undo the “suspicious” nature of the humanities. Paul Ricoeur, Harold Bloom, Rita Felski and Eve Sedgwick (amongst many others) have gestured towards a general mood of doubt and suspicion in the field of critical theory, as being ultimately corrosive towards the expansive project of “critique”. They suggest instead, a more “reparative” and “generative” form of reading and critique—one that focuses on building worlds, instead of tearing them down. To be curious rather than suspicious. 

As Humanities Alliance (HA) fellows, we are placed in “educational development roles” at the community colleges. In the initial phases, the HA focused on “innovative and relevant teaching methodologies” and to foster student interest in “career pathways in the humanities”. In the HA Handbook, there is an emphasis on the professional development aspect of this fellowship, mentorship from senior faculty, a “more concrete understanding of community college students and class environments”, and finally, to “promote a social justice mission of access and equity within higher education”. The intention here is certainly generative and not suspicious, but the language betrays the suspicious mode of thinking, with an insistence on furnishing “proof”.

To better and more “concretely” understand community college environments often requires distilling/stereotyping and a performance of “authenticity” from the institution. The final reflection, which is in the blog post format, is one that centers personal voice/reflection as key to access, authentic experience, and cultural capital, much like the personal essay form. There is a section in the handbook that I find very compelling—the bit that urges fellows to “try out different ways of expressing critique in different spaces”. It recognizes the importance of framing critique in a way that is “valuable” and “accessible” to one’s intended audience. How do we do this in a format where fellows are dropped into the community college environment for a very brief, two-year period, and are expected to come away from the experience having gained insight into its institutional machinery and to produce a reflection that is immediate and relevant at the end of that journey?

Anna Korbluh, in her (very readable) book Immediacy: Or, the Style of Too Late Capitalism makes a very convincing argument about the relationship of capitalism to aesthetic form, relevance, and authenticity. She argues that capitalism has systematically decimated our capacity to see ourselves relationally, to sense our place in history. Kornbluh calls this current moment “too late capitalism” and names its corresponding aesthetic “immediacy style”. I found this to be a very useful heuristic to think through the compressed, accelerated, two-year format of the Humanities Alliance Fellowship, with all its moving parts.

Immediacy style requires proof—compartmentalization, extensive documentation, personal reflection, first-person narrative, meta-thinking—that in many ways undermines the fundamentally relational and mediated nature of the humanities. 

And so I want to think about the work of the Humanities Alliance in a more reparative, generative way, as mediation. In Kornbluh’s more cynical reading of “public humanities”, she says that humanities scholars are pushed towards autotheory, pressured to generate “public humanities” content and writing with “interdisciplinary” “crossover appeal”—which is a symptom of higher education’s performativity of authenticity in the face of financial ruin. 

Reflective writing in the genre of “public humanities” (such as this blog) should be historically and infrastructurally invested. What the HA fellowship allows us is access, which needs to be understood, historicized, and theorized in the broader context of public humanities education by the fellows. Crucial to understanding the institution of the community college is to see it in relation to the rest of CUNY, New York City, and public education as a whole. The radical history of the CUNY and the creative ways in which it has fought for and retained funding (public and private) in an atmosphere of precarity, the ways in which the bureaucratic and organizing principles of the university have been changed to accommodate crests and troughs in student intake, the ways in which the unwieldy “institution” of CUNY has created communities that have effectively changed the nature of the institution—is worthy of closer study. 

 It involves speculative as well as archival work. This is a project of historical re-mediation, one I believe the Humanities Alliance should take on.