Tuesday, 19 April 2011

More Crimes against Humanities! Closures at London Metropolitan University

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings more woeful tidings of attacks on arts and humanities in the UK higher education sector, this time threatening courses, staff and students of Philosophy, History and Performing Arts at London Metropolitan University. Campaign links are given below, together with a summary of what has been going on at LMU by academics in Philosophy there.

A meeting of London Metropolitan University’s Academic Board yesterday [] approved proposals for the closure of Philosophy, along with its fellow Humanities subjects, History and Performing Arts – that is to say, it decided that they will not recruit from 2012/2013. This decision was extremely sudden. Until Tuesday evening of this week, when colleagues on Academic Board received papers for the coming meeting, it seemed that these courses were to be preserved. This was not the decision of the Faculty, which proposed to continue these courses, but of central management.
     The ground for the decision was ostensibly that of prospective profitability. However, neither Faculty nor central management have been willing to divulge the figures or the modelling methods used to reach this decision. Crude calculations on the basis of existing student numbers suggest that the University actually will lose more income than can be possibly saved in redundancies. This supposition is supported by the fact that when asked at the sub-committee of the Board of Governors meeting last night how much the cuts were expected to save, the Director of Finance replied that they had not yet made that calculation.
     Philosophy has been taught at LMU and its predecessor institutions (the University and Polytechnic of North London) since the 1960’s, and has offered a Single Honours degree since 1973. Since the 1980’s, the course has been distinguished by the fact that it provides equal coverage of both Analytic and European philosophy. Although it is now smaller than in the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, it still maintains this breadth of coverage.
Philosophy is extremely popular among its students and in last year’s Guardian student satisfaction survey came 29th out of 47 – far higher than the University overall.
     The decision to close History and Performing Arts is just as shocking as the decision to close Philosophy. History also achieves a far better than average satisfaction ranking – 48th out of 93, and Performing Arts is widely regarded as providing training at least as good as the Royal Colleges. The cutting of these three courses, following the decisions made earlier this year to close several other Humanities courses, leaves only a small rump of surviving courses, which will almost certainly be absorbed into other Faculties. It therefore seem likely that LMU will in a very few years be a University without Humanities. This is therefore another instance of that alarming trend, whereby, not only philosophy, but also other Humanities courses are deemed inappropriate for students in the post-1992 Universities.
     It is still possible that pressure from inside and outside the University will prompt reconsideration of this decision. If you wish to register a protest, please email:
With thanks in advance for your support,
Jim Grant, Course Leader
Dr Adam Beck, Senior Lecturer
Dr Chris Ryan, Senior Lecturer

Friday, 18 March 2011

Save Philosophy at Keele!

[Leaflet by Enric G. Torrents]
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES today reports on the worrying news of a threat to the Philosophy Department at Keele University. It urges its readers to consider signing the online petition set up to register protest against a move to close this successful department. Please see below:
Keele was founded in 1949 by the philosopher A D Lindsay, an advocate of education for the working classes, and who thought of Keele as the 'people's university'. The University claims its current mission is 'to be recognised as the UK’s leading example of an open, integrated intellectual community.' [Peter Kail (Oxford) cited by Keele University Considering Closure of Its Philosophy Department!"hyperlinks added by DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES
Keele University is planning to shut down its philosophy department, a move critics describe as an “emblematic loss” that would damage the institution’s credibility.
       Keele has judged that the department, which teaches about 200 undergraduates, should be wound down without further admissions as part of a drive to save £6.5 million in staff costs over two years.
      The university also plans to close its Centre for Professional Ethics, which employs eight academics.
[John Morgan, "Keele's Philosophers Stare into the Abyss", Times Higher, March 18, 2011: read more - hyperlinks added by DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES]
Since May 2010 Keele University's Senate has been considering ways to deal with changes in funding for the university. On the 16th March a paper was released to the Senate containing formal proposals to deal with these changes in funding. One such proposal was the complete closure of the philosophy programme at Keele. This decision is not only totally unjustified, but is also a travesty to the academic credibility of the university.
On the 7th April, the university Council will officially vote on the issue. This vote will either save or condemn the philosophy programme at Keele. This website has been set up to protest against the cutting of the philosophy program. Please support us in any way possible: the main way to do so would be to sign the petition that has been linked below.
But you could also do other things such as:
  • Tell as many people as possible about the closure and get them to sign the petition.
  • If you are a Keele student or Keele alumni please send to this email address a blurb about why you think that the philosophy programme should stay open. Entitle the email "Save Philosophy Blurb". As many as possible will be included in a document to be sent to the Vice Chancellor of Keele University.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Autonomy? Part Six of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

Pococurante's Library in Voltaire's Candide, or Optimism (Public Domain Image; Source: Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Paris: Sirène, 1759)
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you the final part, below, of David McCallam's important and timely Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759). You can read the earlier parts by clicking on the following links: 'Introduction', 'Possible Worlds,' 'Ethos', 'Work' and 'Equality'.  


Today’s students are being recast as consumers, as customers. Via consumer choice and customer satisfaction, they are to discipline universities into becoming models of competivity, efficiency and market-responsiveness, thereby ‘driving up the quality’ of their educational ‘product’. Yet the very notion of ‘quality’ would require both institutions and students to have comparable aims, aspirations, starting points and outcomes; it would also require accurate, objective and stable means of measuring all of these elements. In the glaring absence of one-size-fits-all institutions, a population of student clones, and reliable and valid data by which to measure their comparability and compatibility, any notion of consumer choice is false, any idea of customer satisfaction is misleading. In reality, in the new higher education marketplace, a lot of students will be culturally constrained and financially obliged to shop at the Lidl of universities, not at the Waitrose, let alone the Harrods, of higher education institutions. 

Some might object that money is being redirected to ‘widening participation’ schemes and bursaries for poorer students in order to offset this eventuality (even though the sums involved are paltry, and go nowhere near to compensating for the overall exorbitant hike in fees). The truth is that when universities are effectively recast as vending machines for degrees, some vending machines may well offer fair-trade products or discounted items, but they will remain first and foremost vending machines.

Within universities too, the new fees market means the increased adoption of private business practices. Already in research, we have moved from the industrial model of the Research Assessment Exercise (2008), and its talk of productivity and outputs, to the managerial model of the Research Excellence Framework (2014), with its key terms of impact, excellence and performance. In teaching terms, private business practice means workload quotas, performance-related evaluations and ‘outreach’ as the drive to tap new markets. This is the soft power of the free market, centred on competition, which relentlessly implicates university researchers and teachers in their own subjugation, in a process of constant self-disciplining to outperform their colleagues. The same goes for students. The same soft power constrains them, as consumers, to make educational choices which are presented as ‘free’, but which are heavily predetermined by the laws of the marketplace (credit, cost, interest, etc.). 

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out in a text published only three years after Candide, ‘there is no form of enslavement so perfect as that which retains the appearance of freedom’. And for both students and university teachers, subjection lies at the core of the construction of their subjectivity as education consumers and entrepreneurial academics.

Yet the very activities engaged in by both students and lecturers in the classroom offer a powerful means of resisting and rejecting this free-market model. Antithetical to the bipolar economy of greed-fuelled boom and panic-stricken bust, or the schizoid nature of debt/credit (called ‘debt’ when punitive, ‘credit’ when seductive), the individual and collective reasons exercised in the arts and humanities seminar measure gain only in terms of critical autonomy, in gestures of imaginative invention, ethical critique or empathic insight. At once wary and witty, they provide the means to ensure that we do not collude in our own oppression. If only by increasing our power to question, they challenge the language and the logic used to justify the increasingly subtle forms this oppression takes. 

This critical autonomy succeeds because, unlike market minds, it is first and foremost self-aware: it the exercise of critical reasoning and a critique of reason too, invoking emotions, imagination and ethics to make its case. In a world where power operates and is modulated in exclusive, encoded forms – your PIN, computer password, work log-in, supermarket swipecard, student registration no., etc. – the arts class affords a space for an individual and collective code-breaking. Codes are broken in both senses of the term: social and moral norms are willingly transgressed, systems and structures of meaning are cleverly unpicked. Critical autonomy is thus generated by outwitting our everyday forms of collective constraint and self-regulation.

Published in 1759, what can Candide possibly tell us of these very modern forms of subjugation and emancipation? On the surface, its disciplines are military and physical, involving the apparatuses of armies, inquisitions and prisons. It seems to fall back more on the classical methods of brute force and internment, rather than applying today’s subtle and varied techniques of internalization as means of control (chief of which is debt as a devolved form of self-policing, for states as much as for individuals). After all, Candide is press-ganged and violently drilled in Bulgar (i.e., Prussian) military discipline, and is thrown into prison when he attempts to desert; the erstwhile maid Paquette is imprisoned and only released on condition of becoming her judge’s sex slave; Cunégonde’s splenetic brother, the Baron, is incarcerated by the Spanish, and made a galley-slave along with Pangloss; and the English admiral Byng is famously court-martialled and executed ‘to encourage the others’. Yet in Venice, Candide meets a deposed king who had lain on the straw of a debtor’s prison in London, whose last servant now leaves his master because no-one in Venice will advance him any ‘credit’. Dethroned, he drifts from place to place, in perpetual fear of being thrown back in gaol; debt has become his new prison, and is all the more effective in that it accompanies him everywhere he goes.

What is more, a close reading of the Eldorado episode shows us that it is effectively governed by a form of soft power. Its people will their own internment between its high mountain walls and rushing rivers. Their ‘oath’ never to leave recalls Rousseau’s ‘perfect enslavement’ which ‘keeps the appearance of freedom’ and (he goes on) ‘thus subjugates the will itself’. It is a system conceived to make one’s behaviour behave (to paraphrase Foucault). And Candide recognizes the subtle and pervasive forces of conformity into which he and Cacambo would be co-opted if they stayed: ‘if we stay here’, he tells his companion, ‘we’ll only ever be like all the others’. This – and not the deceptive show of freedom and equality – explains the absence of courts and prisons in the kingdom. There’s no need of legal or physical constraints where the inhabitants willingly connive in their own subjection.

In effect, Candide’s critical autonomy dates from his decision to leave Eldorado in pursuit of Cunégonde. He turns his back on this ‘utopia’, and its self-regulating, self-perpetuating conformity precisely because Eldorado has chosen to shut itself off from the realities of inquisitorial rule and cannibalism to the south, and the inhumanity of the slave trade to the north. This newfound critical autonomy is confirmed by Candide’s subsequent decision in Surinam to renounce Optimism and to contrive a plan to have Cunégonde brought to meet him in Venice. It’s an independence of mind that allows him to counter Martin’s pessimism, negotiate the worldly traps of Venice and Paris, and settle outside Constantinople where he and his fellows are not in and out of power as are the effendis, cadis, and pashas paraded past their windows, but in a state of empowerment, discoursing, dissenting, cultivating garden and minds.

The ending of Candide lends itself to innumerable readings. In part, this is because the text plays with disparate and divergent narrative codes in wending its way to its conclusion. Candide’s tale thus evokes a medieval romance, an epic quest, a picaresque novel, moral satire, conte philosophique, Bildungsroman, modern parable or classic fable as well as the contemporary travel narratives of the grand tour and sentimental journey. Its universe may well be one ruled by brutish, explicit violence – war, torture, natural disaster, execution, enslavement and incarceration – yet even these forms of physical coercion and subjugation are encoded in the narrative. They offer Candide, and his fellow protagonists, opportunities to test the grand theories, worldviews or meta-narratives by which oppression is variously explained, justified or excused. Experiencing forms of extreme physical disciplining allows Candide to challenge and ultimately break the code of Pangloss’s Optimism or Martin’s pessimism, and sundry other ‘totalitarian’ philosophies (e.g., the ‘–isms’ of Catholicism, imperialism, even possibly nascent capitalism). And like Candide, the reader too gains in critical autonomy in ‘cracking the codes’ in the text, in ‘getting’ the parodies of Optimist language in the euphemistic descriptions of sex and violence, in reading at once a tale denoting various adventures in a universe of appalling, inhuman viciousness and a tale connoting sophisticated philosophical satire and light-touch political irony. Hence even Candide and Pangloss’s inquisitorial dungeons (the depth of physical oppression) can be rendered as ‘separate apartments of exceptional coolness in which one was never incommoded by the sun’ (the height of poetic liberty). 

Candide is thus very much a story for our times: one of confronting a succession of crises of representation. The world is presented, or rather represented, to Candide in a number of systematic, philosophical ways, of which the most insistently reductive is Pangloss’s Optimism. Yet the inchoate, arbitrary nature of events in the world, as experienced by Candide, gives the lie to these systems of representation and pitches them into crisis. And, as the etymology suggests, crises are the moments par excellence for critical autonomy to assert itself, for more intelligent questions to be asked, for codes to be broken (and definitively rejected where necessary), for self-awareness to challenge our own collusion in the processes of deceptive and oppressive system-building, and for alternative, tentative interpretations to emerge. And once again, as in Candide, so in the arts seminar in which it is read. 

When our own collective endeavours are threatened and shaken by events seemingly beyond our control or comprehension – a natural disaster, a financial crash, a political upheaval – it is then that the critical practices of the arts class empower us to make sense where little or none seems to be left. More than any other area of study, the arts and humanities teach us to negotiate and shape the shifting historical, political, philosophical, discursive and visual fields of meaning constituting our understanding of the world around us. 

A fortiori then, when these fields of meaning appear to disintegrate, it is the arts and humanities students who can best recognize and manage such crises of representation. To give a few examples: in the face of a humanitarian crisis, they provide a voice for the voiceless; in an economic crisis, they are least surprised by the fluid, illusory nature of credit; in a political crisis, they propose alternative modes of action, and can draw on their own democratic practices to do so. In the twenty-first century, the critical autonomy gained in the arts classroom may prove to be at the very least a fundamental survival skill, and at best, an individual and collective guide into a more enlightened, humane future.

But first, it leads us to the following, and final, manifesto principle:

Article 5°

By educating us to be self-aware and critically autonomous, the arts and humanities ensure that we are less likely to collude in our own oppression; equally, they best equip us to manage society’s increasingly frequent crises of representation (political, economic, cultural, rhetorical, visual).

Further reading:

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile, ou de l’éducation (Paris, 1999)

  • Tzvetan Todorov, In Defence of the Enlightenment (London, 2010)

  • Michel Foucault, Sécurité, territoire, population. Cours au Collège de France, 1977-1978 (Paris, 2004)

Further further reading (on Candide):

  • David Williams, Voltaire: Candide (London, 1997)

  • Roger Pearson, The Fables of Reason. A Study of Voltaire’s Contes philosophiques (Oxford, 1993), ch. 8 on Candide, pp. 110-136

  • René Pomeau, ‘Candide entre Marx et Freud’, SVEC 89 (1972), pp. 1305-1323

Monday, 14 March 2011

Equality? Part Five of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

File:Voltaire and Diderot at the Café Procope.jpeg
Voltaire and Diderot at the Café Procope in Paris. Seated in the rear, from left to right: Condorcet, La Harpe, Voltaire (with his arm raised) and Diderot. [Public Domain Image: Source]

DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you Part Five of David McCallam's persuasive Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759).

The 'Introduction', 'Possible Worlds,' 'Ethos', and 'Work' have already appeared. The final instalment of the Manifesto -- Autonomy --  will appear tomorrow. 


Politically, Candide moves in a world of feudal overlords, absolutist monarchs, autocrats and despots. Even utopian Eldorado is a consensual, if not constitutional, monarchy (in effect a sort of tyranny of conformity). The closest he comes to a republic is among the Oreillons, a South American tribe of cannibals who nearly roast him and Cacambo alive under the impression that they are Jesuits. It is true that Venice, where Candide stays for months awaiting Cunégonde, is styled a republic, although it is in fact ruled by a repressive patrician oligarchy. And Candide meets there only more deposed kings and a cynical, blasé aristocrat who dismisses England’s liberal parliamentary monarchy as corrupted by rabid factionalism. So the notion of democracy seems totally alien to Candide’s narrative universe.

We might then be tempted to think that we have improved on this situation; that our western democracies offer forms of civic freedoms, civil rights and equality before the law unimaginable to Candide and his fellows. Yet, before we get too smug, Jacques Rancière points out that what we call ‘democracy’ is really no such thing. First of all, our democracy is conceived of not as a fundamentally political entity but as a social one; it is characterized by such things as individual or minority rights, social mobility, and equal access to services and credit, etc. That is, it is reduced to a sort of egalitarian individualism whose defining feature is an inviolable freedom of ‘choice’. And by subtly effacing the collective civic nature of democracy, our systems of governance have substituted political equality with consumer equality. Thus our democracy’s showcase elections increasingly resemble a consumer challenge between three or four brands of washing powder (each promising to come cleaner than the others); a vote for either Pepsi or Coke. This is democracy as consumption, democracy as greed à la Thatcher, a share-owning, home-owning, self-serving democracy; and as we have recently discovered, in such a democracy the only thing we end up holding in common is debt.

This is also, or course, the democratic model currently being rolled out in higher education. (Yet free-market democracy and consumer equality have proven to be precisely the least equal and most unjust of modern liberal systems. As Danny Dorling has compellingly shown, over the last few years wage inequality in Britain has returned to levels not seen since the 1850s. Admittedly, we have greater general access to welfare, healthcare and education than our Victorian forebears – but for how long? When the government is hell-bent on selling off or tendering out public services, civic spaces and communal activities to competing private interests – and these include the voluntary sector – the Dickensian workhouse, not the arts and humanities workshop, best prefigures our collective future…)

Consumer equality in higher education clearly means the fees market with its attendant exacerbation of existing inequalities of access (a 40% drop in students from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds who said they are definitely going to university in the wake of the Browne report). As the US has decisively proven in this regard, educational inequality entrenches social immobility. Those few students from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to university in the US (3% from the lowest socio-economic quartile) are more likely to drop out, consolidating a lack of aspiration in their peers – ‘university’s not for the likes of us’ – thereby betraying higher education’s fundamental civic mission. On top of that, tuition fees consistently rise faster than inflation, so poorer households, already hit by wage inequalities, see the dream of university education receding ever faster away from them.

And yet let’s look at what is happening not to higher education but within higher education, specifically in its arts and humanities classrooms. Here a very different conception of democracy is at work. It is, as Rancière suggests, a truer democracy, one conceived of as ‘government by those who have no desire to govern’. It is the collective exercise of power in the absence of any title to exercise it. Let’s illustrate this with some stereotypes: it is the mousy young woman at the back finding her voice, the immigrants’ daughter relating a text to family experiences, the grammar-school lad confronting troublingly new worldviews. Those who haven’t spoken before, who didn’t know how to speak, who always spoke from a certain point of view, now speak together – as equals.

It sounds idealistic, and yet we see it everyday in the arts faculties of our universities. This is democracy not as the ‘power of the people’ (already a self-interested ideological construct), but as the empowerment of anyone at all. Consumer equality is replaced (if only here, if only for a moment) with the equality of intelligences. At its best, students become the source of the questions, not their target audience; they ask questions to which they don’t have an answer and to which their teachers have no definitive response. Democracy, in this context, no longer resides in expressing the ‘popular will’ but in exercising collective reason(s) and collective imagination(s) – an exercise which both guarantees the democratic nature of the classroom and grants critical autonomy to individual students.

A similar equality of intelligences reigns between Candide and Cacambo. Their relationship is ostensibly that of master and servant. But as they travel picaresquely across South America, it is the servant who takes the initiative, speaks up, works out the situation and takes action. (This might be read as part of a more widespread eighteenth-century inversion of power between master and servant – think Almaviva and Figaro – yet its philosophical and pedagogical significance runs deeper than that of a daring plot device. It also goes beyond the ‘truth’ of the master-slave dialectic which subjugates the master just as much as the slave to its dynamic. Instead, it realizes a master-servant dialogue; and despite the restoration of a certain social hierarchy in the denouement, for as long as the pair exchange words, they do so as equals. Hence the scandal of Figaro is the scandal of equality and the promise of democracy inscribed in the very discursive fabric of a society of orders).

As Rancière again has pointed out, the apparent inequality of their positions as master and servant is only made possible by a inherent equality of intelligences: that even as Candide commands Cacambo, in the very act of commanding him, the master has to assume a speaking position of equality in order to be understood. And as for the fictitious master and servant, so for the arts lecturer and his or her students. The assumed knowledge disparity existing between lecturer and student is only allowed to obtain because of the fundamental equality of intelligences on which it is founded, and which permits any exchange of views at all. Hence the arts student, like Cacambo, takes the initiative, speaks up and ‘acts as interpreter’ – ostensibly for the lecturer, but in reality for the class, for his or her interpretive community. This is how Candide’s enterprising servant interprets again and again not just for his master but also for the reader.

Cacambo’s interpretations and Candide’s interrogations, along with other dialogues and personal stories, drive the narrative of their philosophical tale. In fact, to borrow Roger Pearson’s description of Voltaire himself, we might say that Candide ‘thinks narratively’; that it is a masterclass in thinking narratively. As much as anything else, then, the text’s mockery and denunciation of Pangloss is as a teller of a sole tale, as the narrator of a single metanarrative (Optimism) to which all else is unerringly subordinated. In contrast, Candide – and the Old Woman, Cunégonde, etc. – recount and relate micro-narratives, short stories, anecdotes in which they incessantly rehearse the acts of affirmation and resistance that structure their world. Even the Surinam slave has his tale to tell, forging a subjectivity out of the very terms of his subjection.

Micro-narratives thus provide a further means of making speakers equal, of instituting a sort of discursive egalitarianism in the face of Pangloss’s Single Truth. For storytelling collapses hierarchies, its equality of tale-teller and listener being among the purest, oldest and most common of equalities; and one that is rediscovered daily in our arts and humanities seminars. Hence students are often tempted to interpret narratively, to relate anecdotes as a means of explaining how they read the text: how Pangloss reminds them of an Irish uncle, or how Candide’s adventures recall in places such and such an episode of The Simpsons… And as with their anachronisms, students should be actively encouraged to develop these anecdotes. Originally, anecdotes – such as those of Procopius – were secret and subversive histories told as witty, revealing correctives to the metanarrative of History structured around the acts of the great dead white male. And they retain this revealing, corrective function in the arts and humanities classroom, as in society at large.

The anecdote is, in a sense, narrative in its most elemental form, micro-narratives that debunk ‘History’ or ‘Philosophy’ or ‘Art’ and empower their speakers, at once levelling and enfranchising; a democratic discourse among others practised and learnt in the arts classroom.

From all of which we can advance the following manifesto principle:

Article 4°

University arts and humanities classes constitute a genuinely democratic space, founded on the equality of intelligences of their members; at once levelling and empowering, they are the workshops of citizenship.

Further reading:
  • Jacques Rancière, Hatred of Democracy (London, 2006)
  • Daniel Dorling, Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists (Bristol, 2010)
  • Roger Brown, ‘The Impact of Markets’, in Higher Education and the Market, ed. Roger Brown (New York, 2011), pp. 20-52

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Work? Part Four of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

File:Die Gartenlaube (1878) 383.jpg
Voltaire as a guest of Frederick the Great, Die Gartenlaube (Leipzig: Ernst Keil's Nachfolger, 1878), p. 383
 [Public Domain Image]
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you Part Four, below, of David McCallam's eloquent and thought-provoking Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759).

The 'Introduction', 'Possible Worlds,' and 'Ethos' have already appeared. The last two instalments of the Manifesto -- 'Equality' and 'Autonomy' -- will be published in the next two days.


John Sutherland notes that if you are paying up to £50,000 for an undergraduate course, ‘you don’t want a good education, you want a good degree. The two are not identical’. In this way fees will not ‘drive up quality’, as market logic maintains, but they will certainly drive up grades. Again, the two are not identical. The endgame is a sort of educational stagflation where real intellectual growth flat-lines while the grade point average soars. Yet this makes sense for the fee-paying customer who demands product, but doesn’t give a damn for the processes of production. Degrees become commodities, goods divested of all origin or end, to be indefinitely exchanged against other commodities and services. And the students will not be to blame, for why should they read till midnight, write till dawn, cogitate, debate, disagree, query, chat, cite, and learn when their money’s down (albeit in exorbitant third-party loans) to do the work for them?

Work. This is the nub of the question. For the common perception is that students don’t do ‘work’ at university, they ‘study’. (And study at university is itself often a stark departure from a school system that betrays its roots in the nineteenth-century mills and manufactures). So work at university, especially in the arts and humanities, is not at all recognizable as work. It clearly isn’t manual labour, it doesn’t produce material goods like a factory, it doesn’t generate profits like a company, and it doesn’t offer a service to customers. And yet nothing could be more productive. The arts seminar affords a very different order of productivity to those familiarly deployed by the market or indeed the state; for its primary mode of production is not economic but dialogic. It produces above all meanings, interpretations, theories, propositions, anecdotes, stories, chat, dissent, wit and questions. It is not utilitarian but value-based, that is, it is less concerned with quantities than with qualities. It can’t be calculated in terms of labour, since it is the fruit of unforeseeable elaborations. When text and class meet, what they produce is inimical to econometric measurement. And as such it is both an enigma and a threat to the prevailing socio-economic orders of work and production.

This last point was strikingly brought home in France in 2006 when the neo-liberal presidential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, sneeringly dismissed the humanities education required of civil servants as the insistence of ‘a sadist or an imbecile’. Why would, he asked, you ever want to know what the ticket clerk thought of La Princesse de Clèves (a brilliant, subtle seventeenth-century novel by Mme de Lafayette)? Or course, Sarkozy never stopped to consider what La Princesse de Clèves might ask of the ticket clerk… And the current British government’s concerted attack on the humanities is founded either on a similarly philistine arrogance or, more chillingly, an astute ideological demolition of a radically alternative model to their competition theory and market mantra. For the productivist and literal worldview championed by Sarkozy, and to a lesser extent his British counterparts, is challenged by all that is playful and literate in the arts classroom. 

The reason for this lies in its very means of production: language not labour. In generating discourse, that is, language at work, each of us contributes to discursive production to a unpredictably fluctuating degree, but none of us ever owns, appropriates or expropriates it completely or indefinitely. Discourse makes sense only insofar as it is shared, constituted by a given language community, as a given language community, for a given language community. It is the original ‘common wealth’, and as such, it manifestly fails to fit the capitalist mould. It is similarly anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian. It often just needs its users to wake up to their share in its collective exercise. And, oddly enough, it is precisely by taking part in this common enrichment via language that each of us simultaneously acquires the means to define ourselves more clearly, to deepen or enrich our own sense of self and gain in discursive autonomy. Giving ourselves over to this collective turns out to be the best way to affirm our individuality. If nothing else, this is the work of the university seminar, of the arts and humanities classroom.

This discursive model of production is not without similarities to Candide’s garden. His journey over, Candide settles to share-cropping, effectively setting up a market-garden cooperative in which, as the text states, ‘each began to exercise his or her talents’ and ‘no-one refused to work’. Beyond the rather sexist division of labour in the commune (the women cook, sew and clean), what is perhaps most striking is the persisting presence of Dr Pangloss in this working community. Stubbornly purveying his obsolete Optimism, what possible use could he be there? And yet this is precisely his purpose, it seems. His lack of value or use in the collective serves to valorize further the others’ labours. Philosophically, his very existence in the group also ensures that Candide’s garden is not run on purely utilitarian grounds. As in the arts seminar, the apparently useless has significant use – and may even by its negative qualities come paradoxically to represent the greatest value of all. In the case of Pangloss, this means learning for learning’s sake, talking for talking’s sake, which yet intimates how valuable learning or talking is when set to work, as useless gold constitutes the value-index of other more practical, worked metals.

But Pangloss’s very pigheaded cleaving to his philosophical system is also a reminder of how far the others have travelled philosophically, Candide especially. And to do so, they have undertaken, experienced or witnessed a huge range of works or labours. René Pomeau estimates that there are around 137 instances of artisanal or professional activity in the tale; at least 15 different forms of general employment figure there, including teachers, doctors, prostitutes, clerics, soldiers, merchants, servants and financiers. 

Having said that, Candide is never among the more brilliant of them. He is trained as a soldier, yet hides in battle (then kills random civilians); as a merchant, he is consistently defrauded of his goods or wealth. And as the naïve apprentice metaphysician to Pangloss, he fails to hold true to any abstract philosophical system in the face of real-world experiences. Yet in the course of his travels he does excel at one thing: conversation. This is the most successful and explicit form of production in the text. And tellingly, it is what Candide, the Old Woman, Martin and others ship across oceans as their produce of choice. And as produce that is constantly in the process of being publicly produced, revised and refined, this discourse contrasts starkly with those other products freighted across the ocean which seem to want to deny the labour that brought them into being: the gold washed of its miners’ blood and sweat, and especially the sugar cleaned and bleached of the slaves’ torment, torture and pain. Yet the mutilated black slave in Surinam spells this deception out to Candide and Cacambo; his amputated hand, his  severed leg, his chains are, as he puts it, the ‘price of eating sugar in Europe’. Yet unlike sugar and gold (today we might say – trainers and microchips), Candide’s conversation successfully resists inhuman commodification.

Another example of pitiless exploitation in the text is potentially even more interesting for twenty-first-century readers. At least as I interpret it. When the boat carrying Candide, Pangloss and their employer, the good Dutch Anabaptist, Jacques, cruises into Lisbon harbour, it is suddenly ripped apart by flash-storms generated by the devastating earthquake that famously razed the city to the ground on 1 November 1755, claiming over 10,000 lives by tremors, tsunami and fires. In the shipwreck, Jacques saves a sailor but drowns in the process. Now this sailor turns out to be a nasty piece of work. Thus Pangloss’s providentialism is flagrantly disproved: the virtuous Jacques is drowned, the vicious sailor rescued. Washed ashore along with Candide and Pangloss, the sailor looks around, whistles and says: ‘There’s something to be had here’. Then he sets about robbing the mangled victims of the quake, before carousing and whoring in the rubble with his spoils. 

Though Pangloss protests that the sailor isn’t showing much respect for the forces of Providence that saved him, the good doctor’s Optimism is ultimately an apology for the sailor’s behaviour. For, as Voltaire had remarked bitingly in his earlier ‘Poem on the Lisbon Disaster’, the Optimist justifies the violent but short-lived ‘evil’ of the quake via its subsequent longer-terms effects for ‘good’: heirs suddenly come into unexpected fortunes; masons, carpenters, etc. grow rich rebuilding the city; as in Candide the sailor takes money from the maimed and dying who no longer have any use for it, and reinvests it in the local entertainment industries. From partial evil emerges universal good. This is, of course, Optimism savagely mocked and rubbished.

But I would like to offer another interpretation of the sailor’s action and the Optimist’s apology for it. It strikes me that what Voltaire is describing in the ruins of Lisbon is basically eighteenth-century disaster capitalism. As Naomi Klein describes it, this is when disasters are treated as ‘exciting market opportunities’, and natural catastrophes facilitate ‘orchestrated raids’ on the public sphere. In this much the avaricious sailor in Lisbon is an Enlightenment avatar of the free-marketeers buying up the public housing, hospital and schools in New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina, or the giant tourist companies snapping up the fishing beaches in Sri Lanka once the Boxing Day tsunami had conveniently wiped them clean of their fishing communities. (Increasing evidence suggests that the same processes are at work in earthquake-devastated Haiti). 

Pangloss is then an eighteenth-century Milton Friedman, each with his ‘shock doctrine’ (quite literally in the case of Candide’s quake) legitimating the swift and irreversible appropriation of goods and services before the crisis-racked society can react. The only real difference is that Pangloss is not working with the same distinction between public and private as Friedman is, instead Pangloss’s distinction is between the universal and the particular. But the best of all possible worlds and the freest of all possible markets share the same providentialism – that theirs is the natural order, and it couldn’t possibly be otherwise. The result is forms of philosophical speculation and financial speculation which also share a blithe indifference to their human costs.

Of course, you may object that this is a wildly anachronistic reading of Chapter Five of Candide. And you’d be right. But I would refer your objection to the community of fellow readers, to the jury, so to speak, of my peers in the arts and humanities class. Since, as Stanley Fish has convincingly shown, it is the reader who constructs the text, the reader who shapes its meanings. Yet these subjective, imaginative projections onto the text and refracted, suggestive echoes received from it are not solely the reader’s invention. The reader himself or herself is at the same time a conductor of the prevailing interpretations of the class; he or she is an active member of an interpretive community. And that interpretive community underwrites the acceptability or unacceptability of the reader’s interpretations. They are not true or false, right or wrong, in any definitive, ahistorical sense. They are precisely the product, the work of a given interpretation at a given moment in a given community of readers. And the strength of the arts and humanities seminar is that it is the most pioneering, unconstrained of interpretive communities, given over entirely to the practice of interpreting.

So we must not retrench behind the received wisdoms of a conservative literary, cultural or social history; and if a student ventures an anachronism or an anecdote we should actively embrace it and pursue it. For as Candide shows (manifest in the very name of its hero), the most ingenuous interpretations can often be the most ingenious. Literature, as Ezra Pound famously declared, ‘is news that stays news’; but it only does so by offering up to successive generations of readers an infinitely renewable number of interpretations. It only stays news by being anachronistic, by affording vitally suggestive, powerfully imaginative discrepancies of meaning across time and space. And it is precisely in this cultural-historical interval that meaning is created, that sense is made. (And what goes for literature is equally true of, say, history or philosophy). 

A text only exists insofar as it continues to ‘speak’ to us, and it ‘speaks’ to us only via the actual act of reading, and overwhelmingly in relation to our shifting, everyday concerns. Anachronisms, such as my earlier reading of Chapter Five of Candide are, then, productive, not prohibitive, of meaning. Again, this is a little recognized, highly valuable form of work. Historically, conventionally, we might still refer to Candide as the work of François-Marie Arouet, dit Voltaire. But it’s actually our work, the fruit of our interpretations. It actually makes more sense not to think it as part of the Collected Works of Voltaire, but as part of the collective work called ‘Voltaire’ – the author being nothing other than convenient shorthand for the site of our multiple, unpredictable, anachronistic readings.
From all of which we draw the following manifesto principle:

Article 3°

Publicly funding the arts and humanities recognizes that all our collective activities are grounded in just that: col-lectio, a shared reading or interpretation. The reader is then a viable alternative model of the worker, and the arts seminar a vital alternative mode of production.

Further reading:
  • Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Toronto, 2007)
  • Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge MA., 1980)

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Ethos? Part Three of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

This engraving is from Voltaire's Candide: it depicts the scene where Candide and Cacambo meet a maimed slave of a sugar mill near Surinam. Its caption reads in English, "It is at this price that you eat sugar in Europe"; this line was said by the slave in the text. The slave has had his hand cut off for getting a finger stuck in a millstone and his leg removed for trying to run away. The drawing is by Jean-Michel Moreau; the etching of said drawing by Pierre-Charles Baquoy. The original is from the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris [Public Domain Image]
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES brings you Part Three of David McCallam's eloquent and thought-provoking Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759).

The 'Introduction' and 'Possible Worlds,' the latter published yesterday, may be read here and here. The remaining three sections will continue to appear daily over the weekend and into next week. 

Candide is about human suffering. It is about the ineluctable nature of human suffering in the world. It asks why a supposedly benevolent and all-powerful deity would let us suffer in so many seemingly unjust ways each day, and it exhausts the reason and tortures the bodies of its characters who ceaselessly ask themselves and each other this question. Granted, it does so in an ineffably witty, efficient prose, but it none the less litters its tale with the carnage of war, multiples rapes, deaths, beatings, mutilations, disembowellings and dismemberments. 

In the aftermath of a meaningless battle, ‘brains were strewn on the ground next to severed arms and legs’. Pangloss is hanged and subsequently dissected (and still lives); Cunégonde witnesses her family having their throats slit, while she is raped and stabbed and left for dead; the Old Woman sees her mother ‘torn limb from limb, cut up, butchered’ by lusting, warring Moroccans, then she herself has a buttock hacked off by starving janissaries; and Candide and Cacambo come across a black slave chained up and missing his left leg and his right hand. 

The finest metaphysical explanations offered by Pangloss or Martin cannot account for this excess of physical pain. Their fullest philosophical figures are no match for this much bodily disfigurement. Pangloss may maintain his thesis (Optimism) in the face of mounting antitheses (suffering, injustice, misery), but there can be no synthesis in this world. There is only the prosthesis of fiction, the false tale that tells the truth of pain, the imaginary extension of real suffering.

This is part and parcel of the ethical role of literature, indeed of the arts. To let language do the work – prosthetically as it were – of actual missing limbs, broken bones and ravaged features. And crucially, in so doing, to rearticulate what had become excruciatingly dis-articulated; to remember what had been horribly dis-membered; to reconfigure what had been cruelly dis-figured. In this way the literary text bears witness, both literally and figuratively, to the cruel injustices and violent abuses implicit in its designations of physical pain (of the raped woman, of the mutilated slave). It is also a means of sharing suffering so that the reader ‘feels’ in the very language of the text the torments (or indeed the ecstasies) of its protagonists. 

Thus the literary text generates that precious quality – empathy or fellow feeling. And, of course, this redoubled awareness of others’ suffering is not just an ethical characteristic of the text, it is also key to understanding its aesthetic impact on the reader. A heightened sensitivity to another’s pain, albeit that of a fictional character, necessarily renews one’s own susceptibility to suffering, it makes one feel more alive, it accentuates one’s own appreciation of all forms of feeling. Depriving someone of this experience is to deny them the possibility of greater empathy, in effect numbing them to the suffering of others. The opposite of the text’s aesthetic is the anaesthetic of a life without literature, without the arts. Empathy is crucial: it grounds both the universal ethical appeal of the work (increasing our susceptibility to the feelings of others) and the particular aesthetic charm of the work (sharpening and shaping our own sensibilities).

Yet empathy in Candide derives from sentiment without sentimentality. For instance, the Old Woman can talk of the callous poisoning of her fiancé on their wedding night as a ‘trifle’, then go on to relate a succession of terrible misfortunes with similar stoical understatement because she knows from experience that everyone has his or her story to tell, and has cursed life at some point or other while persevering to live. She embodies a peculiarly dispassionate form of sensibility in the tale, one which feels yet keeps its wits about itself and can reason even as it suffers or hopes. Empathy or fellow feeling, yes; but one which disagrees promptly and punctually with its fellows because disagreement is a mark of respect, not of disdain. 

Put another way, any consensus of feeling or thought is only legitimate if at the same time it admits of dissent, if it is formed in a community founded on a mutual freedom of critique. Informed consensus is only made possible by what we might call a founding dissensus. Candide and Martin illustrate this point perfectly as they travel across the seas, arguing incessantly for fifteen days straight without coming any closer to agreement than when they first set sail. But all the while, as the text has it, ‘they were speaking, they were communicating ideas to one another, they were consoling one another’. Unlikely as it sounds, disagreement consoles, argument engenders empathy. Hence when both end up in the fabled garden near Constantinople, it is not to reconstitute the ‘pre-established harmony’ of an Eden, or of a feudal Westphalian castle, but a consensus of dissenters and, as such, one requiring constant upkeep – ‘il faut cultiver notre jardin’, after all… And my point is that this same salutary dissensus exists and flourishes in the better arts and humanities classrooms of our universities.

Ethics and empathy also come together in the creation of ‘characters’ in literature. Each character (from the Greek ethos) speaks in a different voice, and as we read empathically, he or she allows us to try out that voice, that viewpoint, for ourselves. Each gives us access to tastes, sensibilities and values which are not our own, not those we have inherited, often unconsciously, from our national or cultural traditions. We re-evaluate our own ethical positions for having provisionally espoused those of imaginary characters just as surely as children learn their values in the first place through trial-and-error imitation of the adults around them. Characters speak for us as other to ourselves, as though we were Other. And sometimes, in the greatest texts, they do so with such force and clarity that we prefer their words to ours; or rather, their words speak through us, as Other, to our friends, colleagues, strangers in the ‘real’ world. 

In a process that has been beautifully described by Antoine Compagnon, a particular turn of phrase or a spell-binding line of poetry speaks to us and only to us, or so we feel (this is soli-citation); so we identify ourselves with it and appropriate it as our own (citation); in order to do this, we underscore it, repeat it, memorize it, excerpt it from its context (ex-citation) and use it in the world beyond the text. And by this process of soliciting-citing-exciting, the voice of the text speaks through us and makes us other to who we are and to who we were; and for as long as we speak those words, and only those words, we experience the thrilling (exciting?) illusion of being simultaneously ourselves and someone completely different, without for a moment having the alienating sensation of ceding our emotional and moral independence to another living-breathing person. A literary citation is thus empathy à l’état pur.

This also goes some way to explain why literary texts, when studied with attention and care, inspire in us such love and loathing and shake up so thoroughly our received wisdoms and unquestioned ‘truths’. It also underlines a fundamental ethical mismatch between what happens to receptive, intelligent readers in an arts seminar and what modern university bureaucracy asks of them afterwards. Which student is it who is being asked to assess his or her ‘satisfaction’ with my literature course? Today’s entitled consumer or the reader whose worldview has been transformed by stepping into Candide’s narrative universe with his or her classmates? How can the punctual ticking of boxes ever be a legitimate measure of the lifelong relevance of being challenged by Kant or Shakespeare, of having no easy answers to Candide’s eternal questions? (Ethics, after all, isn’t just about comforting the afflicted; it’s also about afflicting the comfortable). Admittedly, this is something of a misrepresentation of the aims of the National Student Survey (NSS). But not because the NSS cares about individual student satisfaction. It couldn’t care less. 

These rhetorical questions misrepresent it because the NSS is only another means of consolidating universities in their new role as businesses and brands, competing with each other for the student vote, i.e., for the student dollar. The dubious rationale goes, as Stefan Collini has shown, if students are ‘satisfied’, they will pay; if not, they won’t. And those universities who don’t give student satisfaction will not get the income to keep trading and will therefore either close or be forced to ‘drive up the quality’ of their educational product. The NSS is the insidious measure that ensures Browne’s fetish of competition enters the public space of the university – the better to break it up and sell it off. 

So while arts and humanities students study, analyse and interpret the meaning of loss, suffering, humiliation, mediocrity, ugliness, disillusionment and unhappiness in great works such as Candide, their institutions talk exclusively of satisfaction, impact, excellence and success. No room in the boardroom for failure or feeling. Ironically enough, the two visions are not as far apart as they might initially seem, since the market-led, competition-driven obsession with ‘excellence’ goes hand in hand with the deteriorating working conditions, the misery of casualization, and the slashing of pensions for the very staff who are constantly exhorted to deliver it. Likewise, student ‘satisfaction’ is increasingly accompanied by chronic stress, depression, counselling and result-fixated intellectual impoverishment. 

What, we might wonder, would a market-minded vice-chancellor make of Samuel Beckett’s famous definition of the artist as one whose very condition is ‘to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world’? Very little, I suspect. For university management culture is like Pangloss: it only asks questions to which it already presumes to know the answer. When, in turn, teachers, researchers and students are asked to confirm the same answer, it is euphemistically called ‘consultation’. It is a far cry from Candide and his quest ever to question better.

Of the three principal forms of social control bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, Candide sees technology at work in Eldorado, traffics in markets around the globe, but is mercifully spared any protracted experience of bureaucracy. Arts and humanities departments, on the other hand, are more than familiar with a regime of incessant tests, interviews, appraisals, evaluations, questionnaires, focus groups, meetings, forms, memos, reports and audits. The result, as Michel Foucault would say, is the fascism of everyday life. Not the ‘enormous fascisms that surround and crush us’ but ‘the petty ones that constitute the tyrannical bitterness of our everyday lives’. The result is the production of subjects without agency. Products of an inhuman conditioning by the powers of bureaucracy inhabiting a public space ostensibly dedicated to the study of the ‘human condition’.

But our text offers us again the strategies with which to fight back and reclaim our shared humanity. To the pre-determined structure of the questionnaire or the agenda, it opposes the improvisation of chat, the garrulousness of characters who always say more than is necessary, or other than what is expected. (Thus Candide’s picaresque stories, those he tells and those he elicits of others, contrast with Pangloss’s economy of explanation; his colourful interpretation of the French verb causer meaning ‘to chat’ exceeds and overwhelms the Doctor’s more literal sense of causer as ‘to produce an effect’). Chat, like the literature that enshrines it, puts language to work in new, unruly and inventive ways; ways that are almost completely alien to administration. Hence the arts and humanities in which (literary, philosophical or historical) chat is not only the object of discussion but also its medium of communication are disciplines formed by intellectual indiscipline. Despite the best efforts of the management to encourage interdisciplinarity (just another internal market?), these academic subjects have the innovative tendency to generate instead what Yves Citton calls indisciplinarity. What I would call new rules for living together drawn from the unruliness of reading together.
Article 2°

By increasing our capacity for empathy, the arts and humanities make us ethically more aware and aesthetically more alive; and they do so through forms of language (dissenting, citing, chatting) which often defy institutional control.

Further reading:

  • Antoine Compagnon, La Seconde main ou le travail de la citation (Paris, 1979)
  • Michel Foucault, ‘Preface’, in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Œdipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London, 1984), pp. xi-xiv.

Friday, 11 March 2011

Possible Worlds? Part Two of a Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities

Frontispiece and first page of chapter one of an early English translation by T. Smollett et al of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism , printed by J. Newbery, 1762. [Public Domain Image]
DEFEND the ARTS and HUMANITIES is delighted to publish Part Two of David McCallam's Manifesto for the Arts and Humanities, using the example of Voltaire's Candide: or, Optimism (1759). 

The 'Introduction', published yesterday, is here. The remaining four sections will be published daily over the weekend and into next week, with 'Ethos' appearing tomorrow.

Possible worlds

The Browne Report into funding higher education in England was depressingly reductive, judging the worth of university education almost exclusively in economic terms. Only those subjects deemed capable of growing the economy were hailed as fit for funding. The general good, in other words, is nothing more than GDP. No mention of university’s moral transformative capability, its democratizing potential or its civic duty. No defence of its role in providing personal enrichment, cultural apprenticeship or aesthetic pleasure. Society, in Browne’s vision, is competition, not conversation; it is entrepreneurial, not inclusive. 

This is the world, as Matthew Taylor presents it, of the hedge fund, the NHS internal market, X Factor and the Turner Prize where ‘the imperative of competition has become all-pervasive’. This is today’s world, Browne says, and there is no alternative. And in such a world those academic disciplines caricatured as having no clear economic utility should have their public funding withdrawn in its entirety. 

This, of course, means chiefly the arts and humanities – accessory, self-indulgent, esoteric pursuits of knowledge for its own sake. The otium or idleness of personal interest, not the negotium or market savvy of business interests. Yet, is it not intriguing to note that the arts and humanities are also the principal academic sphere from which an innovative critique of this blinkered econometric world view comes? Is it not significant that Browne wants to asset-strip precisely that intellectual domain in which powerful and imaginative alternative worlds are constantly being proposed, explored and debated? In this sense, the arts and humanities are the prime site of resistance to Browne and the coalition government’s economic instrumentalization of university education. What they ‘produce’ instead is critically empowered citizens with the capacity to envisage a different future from the one presented to them. The reason for this is simple: their students and teachers live and breathe in other possible worlds.

So in stark contrast to Browne’s university, it might be better to speak of our multiversity. This is not a reference to Clark Kerr’s multiversity of the 1960s, an institution which geared itself increasingly to the utilitarist needs of the corporate economy. Rather, our twenty-first-century multiversity is characterized by a publicly funded diversity of provision (adult, part-time, vocational, career-break modalities) and a plurality of informed opinion. It is the institutional equivalent of quantum mechanics’s many-worlds theory, of Ernst Bloch’s ‘multiverse’ as a horizon of possibilities, of an infinite number of simultaneously realizable ‘tendencies and latencies’, of Borges’s garden of forking paths. And far from being a secondary string of subjects, a form of cultural ornamentation to the applied sciences, the arts and humanities should be the very model for the academic disciplines of the twenty-first-century multiversity.

The new institution could take as its motto the slogan of the anti-globalization movement: ‘Another world is possible’. It could even say: ‘Other worlds are possible’. It could go so far as to cry: ‘Other worlds are possible and real’. For this is what great works of art, of writing, of thinking constitute. The artist, wrote Henri Bergson, ‘creates the possible at the same time as the real when he carries out his work’. The possible and the real enter into a new relationship in the arts and humanities; and it is not just the artist but also the arts student who creates at once new possibilities and new realities each time that he or she interprets a text or image. (This is, incidentally, a more radical and empowering way of interrogating the world around us – the ‘real’ so to speak – than the commodification of the real by modern mass media, as in ‘reality TV’, ‘real-life magazines’, ‘24-hour news’ or ‘real-time messaging’.)

Let us take the literary text as an exemplary form of alternative world-making in the arts and humanities. Let us then consider one of the finest examples of this imaginative play between the real and the possible, that is, Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism. Its organizing principle is a sustained satirical attack on the Christian and Providentialist readings of Gottfried Leibniz’s Theodicy which promoted the notion of Optimism: that God, in his infinite wisdom, omnipotence and benevolence, created the best possible world from all the ‘compossible’ cosmic permutations available to him. According to this theory, the world is conceived and organized in such a way as to optimize the general good and minimize evil as a regrettable but necessary part of the natural order. As the providentialist poet Alexander Pope put it, ‘All partial Evil’ contributes to ‘universal Good’. 

In Candide this Optimist philosophy is mischievously and repeatedly reduced to its slogan of ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, a view voiced in the tale by the blindly, stubbornly Optimist Dr Pangloss. The irony of Pangloss’s position is that his Optimism precisely excludes all hope – all optimism as we understand the term today – since for him the world cannot possibly be otherwise than it is, being the best of all possible worlds. Yet the adventures of Candide, the eponymous hero of the tale, give the lie to the crushing fatalism of Pangloss’s philosophy, shaping and suggesting alternative worlds with each twist of the plot. They also contradict the opposite but equally abstract and systematic thinking of the pessimist Martin whose Manichean belief in the ultimate triumph of evil over good in the world could be summed up as ‘All is for the worst in the worst of all possible worlds’.  

Candide’s tale also undermines more subtly another perfect world system, that of the utopian community of Eldorado. Whereas other literary texts might connote a better world, utopian texts denote it, explicitly delineating its various perfections. This leads to the paradox of the utopian text, Eldorado in this case, denying the reader the very possibility of imagining a better world otherwise. In this sense, utopia is just as fatalist, fixed and hopeless (there being nothing left to hope for) as Pangloss and Martin’s visions of the world. It is perhaps no coincidence that Candide exits Eldorado only to confront the realities of slavery in Surinam, a juxtaposition of two forms of entrapment in social systems demanding above all conformity to their rules – the one beyond-the-human, the other beneath-the-human.

It is rather Candide’s practical, resourceful servant Cacambo who advises him ‘when you don’t get what you expect in one place (dans un monde), you get it in another. It’s a great pleasure to see and do new things’. To be realistic, as Cacambo undoubtedly is, is to create the possible. And the way to do this, Cacambo suggests, is by exercising one’s curiosity, a trait both he and Candide share in spades. Thus unlike Pangloss who rarely asks questions and always elicits the univocal answer of ‘all is for the best’ from his readings of the world, the curious Candide incessantly interrogates those around him and those he meets, not to confirm his pre-established opinion or to get a definitive response, but precisely to question better. Hence he sees new pertinences arising from his variously impertinent questions. And this is the role of the reader, of the student, of the arts and humanities too. The university has to create a space for the exercise of this Candide-like attention, this curiosity, this credulity which teaches not facts and certainties, but how to question better.

As Candide amply proves, there is no single text, but the site of many possible readings. Pangloss’s problem is that he has only one interpretation of the world. The same goes for Martin and, in a different way, the same is true of the utopian vision of Eldorado. Yet instead of such utopias, Candide opens up for its readers what Dominique Maingueneau calls ‘paratopias’. These are spaces of critical negotiation and experimentation between places in the real world (e.g., Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Venice) and their fictional forms. Paratopias make imaginative room between the actual and the fictional for other possible worlds to exist and be explored, worlds in which we are invited to reconfigure our beliefs and desires. 

The ultimate paratopian situation is that of Candide’s garden at the end of the narrative. It is situated just outside Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) and is thus poised on multiple thresholds over and above the discursive space between a fictional and a real Turkish capital. For instance, the garden sits on the cusp between East and West, between the city and the sea; the garden is also where art and nature meet; and it is an excellent place for cultivating not just natural produce but also dialogue between civilizations, faiths and peoples. Its situation makes of it a literary version of the famous ‘Sublime Porte’ or ‘High Gate’ that gave entrance to the chambers of power in the city under Ottoman rule. So Candide’s final situation forms a sublime doorway from the actual to the fictional, from the real to the possible, and back again. The garden as supreme paratopia also contrasts with the Old World of Europe (identified with Pangloss) and the New World of the Americas (where we meet Martin and visit Eldorado), with their respective forms of Optimism, fatalism and utopia.

The literary text also frees its reader from the prevailing narratives of the ‘real’ world, be they eighteenth-century Optimism or the economic determinism of Browne’s report. Candide is particularly successful in challenging in this manner the metaphysical causality typical of Pangloss and Martin’s way of thinking. To this end it deploys a hubristic narrative causality, involving far-fetched coincidences, improbable accidents and even resurrections from death (the ultimate other world), which makes a mockery of all other causal theories, destroying them by a sort of narrative reductio ad absurdum. In this way Candide’s story reasserts the necessity of chance in life and employs an explicit lack of realism to reclaim the ‘real’ for its readers.

One of the more significant social impacts of reading literary texts is the way their paratopias and invitations into alternative worlds oblige the reader to cleave to two beliefs simultaneously. To invest a belief in the fictional world of the text (to suspend one’s disbelief willingly) and to retain a belief in the actual world and its everyday reference points (to remain suspicious of the fiction). Readers who engage in this game of double beliefs, of credulity and scepticism combined, will arguably be more proof against single-minded extremism, will be less tempted by the simplistic vision of the fanatic or the strident appeals of the fundamentalist. That the arts and humanities immerse their students into simultaneously varied, often starkly divergent, belief systems allows these same students to rehearse the moral and mental gestures necessary for participation in a pluralist and tolerant society. 

As Yves Citton explains, this works a bit like inoculation. As with inoculation, the reader takes a shot of the noxious beliefs exposed in a given fiction the better to build up a resistance, an immunity to the full-blown ravages of the integral belief system. In this way Candide naïvely applies Pangloss’s Optimist theory to his lived experience, which ultimately cures him of it; he is henceforth inoculated against the Doctor’s Optimist fundamentalism. (As if to reinforce the classic Voltairean assimilation of fanatical thinking with infectious disease, Pangloss catches the pox, which costs him an eye and an ear, although his eventual treatment does not cure him of his Optimist zeal. Nor does his falling foul of the rival superstitious intolerance of the Inquisition. Indeed, he clings to his Optimist beliefs even in Constantinople… from where the practice of inoculation was first exported to the West.)

So, the manifesto principle established from this study would be:

Article 1°

At the heart of societies keen to foster tolerant multiculturalism, the arts and humanities provide an essential and unique site for negotiating and experimenting with linguistic, philosophical and cultural plurality.

Further reading:

  • Lubomír Doležel, Heterocosmica: Fiction and Possible Worlds (Baltimore, 1998)
  • Dominique Maingueneau, Le Discours littéraire. Paratopie et scène d’énonciation (Paris, 2004)