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a world those academic disciplines caricatured as having no clear economic utility should have their public funding withdrawn in its entirety.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)

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