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.

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