Jeffrey Cohen blogged at In The Middle a few weeks ago about the Exemplaria conference, held in early February at University of Texas-Austin, on “Surface, Symptom, and the State of Critique” [“Surfaces That Are Never Shallow”], which I also attended, and I have had several presentations and discussions from that conference much on my mind lately while I have also been fretting a little bit over, not so much “the state of critique” as the “state of the [future] university,” maybe primarily because there are so many things I want to see happen and the pace of change within institutions is often glacial at best. I am also not sure what to think about the changes that are already somewhat high [or is it low?] upon the horizon, such as MITx, MIT’s new online [and free] learning initiative [just think: a course with potentially 50,000 students!]. I actually think this is a very cool idea, while at the same time I feel pretty strongly that having actual bodies gathered together in various learning environments [however constructed] will continue to be important [for certain quality of life purposes but also because I believe in the affective-embodied aspects of teaching, but I also know that I can reach more people online than I do in my classrooms at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, as I am doing right now, and so I don’t think this is ultimately about choosing between online and more brick-and-mortar, face-to-face-type learning environments: I think it might be about trying to have it all, and I want both]. And there is the concern, too, of the economics of everything: can every institution of higher learning that exists now really sustain itself or be fully sustained by various funding sources [whether state governments, private investments, tuition and other fees, and the like], forever, into the distant future? Likely not [to whit, on this point, go HERE].
I had a really bizarre moment at the Exemplaria conference that was kind of a first for me; but first, on the third day, I was a little bit in overload mode [so many papers, so many provocative moments, so little sleep, so many cocktails], and my head was buzzing with so many moving/arresting moments [these are LOOSE quotations, I might add, scribbled in hangover hazes]:
“The one term we really need to address/critique in the university today is love.” [George Edmondson]
“Practices of enjoyment and of skeptical, supposedly aloof critique are actually always entwined.” [Geraldine Heng]
“We need to be fierce in defending our discipline [medieval studies]. We need fierce reparative reading; we need affective reading to allow ruptures of hope.” [Noah Guynn]
“Discomfort is also a gift. It gives rise to anxieties but is also constituitive of community. We are fellow travelers in our crisis.” [Noah Guynn, cadging from Ann Anlin Chang]
“Critique is an important component of play.” [Patricia Ingham]
“Creative generalizations are critical to argumentation in our discipline. . . . We need criticism that is a form of poeisis and making; we need affirmative theories that enjoin things, not just pull them apart. . . . Cultivate drifting and distraction and free-floating mindfulness as a way of seeing things anew. Sleep less; generalize more.” [Henry Turner]
“Talent is courtesy toward matter.” [Henry Turner, quoting Jean Genet]
“We don’t know when we might need the past for our own survival.” [Ruth Evans]
“Reading is also reading FOR something, on behalf of something.” [Ruth Evans]
“Looking closely at amateur scholars helps us to broaden what we think we mean by ‘professional.’ . . . Amateurism is a bit queer, especially in its unabashed attachment to things in a climate of detachment.” [Carolyn Dinshaw]
“Critique is not just skeptically ideological and eliminative; it can also be about weighing options to choose one that’s more inclusive. . . . Nothing passes through us uneventfully and everything changes and is changed by its passage through us. . . . [Let’s go for] appreciation over derogation of networked, relational, rhizomatic, trans-affective sentience. . . . Confabulation may not be delusional but rather a crucial tool for understanding one’s experience. . . . The mind needs its plasticity, its vagaries and uncertainties, to get us through this world. . . . The cultivation of everyday thinking is the task of the humanities today.” [Aranye Fradenburg]
“When in crisis, you always need critique; you need judgment. . . . Critique is the ability to distinguish the difference between the crisis that befalls us and the situation that includes us. . . . The symptom is event-ful; it befalls all of us and no one escapes it. . . . Maybe instead of avoiding symptoms, we could fall into them together, including all of the creatures? We are all creatures of befallen-ness.” [George Edmondson]
“When we consider the active propulsions of nonhuman objects in narratives, we raise the ethical stakes. . . . We need a slowness of velocity or even a mode of hesitation to see the movements and propulsions of objects.” [Jeffrey Cohen]
“The process of reading texts collaboratively across disciplines is deeply transactional, and requires transactional reading modes. . . . We need to read, not just the surface, but what sticks out/sticks to us, the things in/on texts that ask/beg to be read and thread things up. . . . ” [Geraldine Heng]
“I belong to the slow thought movement.” [Geraldine Heng]
“I don’t want to explain Hamlet; I just want to make it interesting. We should make texts more interesting, however we can.” [Ben Saunders]
“If we hit upon a meaningful metaphor, reality might actually change. . . . The purpose of scholarship is to explain things that are weird.” [Michelle Warren]
“Let’s stop diagnosing everything, and instead keep working with theory.” [Ben Saunders]
Wow: that was a lot. Delicious. What was I saying? I think I was saying something like, I had this really bizarre moment on the third day of the symposium when, for the first time in my life, I felt kind of . . . OLD. As in: there are so many things I want to do, and I may only have something like 10-15 years left to accomplish those things. Or maybe one week, or one day, if, like, I get hit by a bus [which I think about a lot]. For just a moment, my heart stopped. State of the field: everything is just fine; everything is more fucked up than you could imagine. What will we do? With Ben Saunders, I don’t want to diagnose any more whether our hearts are still beating or we are already dead, whether everything is always already under the thumb of something [power: choose your flavor] or bending-warping just to the left of my angle of vision; with George Edmondson, I say let’s fall into something together. We need to start swimming, while also leaving at least one person behind to keep a light on in the watchtower. We need to start making wrong calls and keep the e/stranged others on the line with us. Because, the thing is, as stimulating and as important as I think the Exemplaria conference was, we also have to stop “meeting” like this, having “meetings” like this where we gather the best minds of a generation to talk to each other about “what to do,” always “what to do” . . . in here.
The university is a beautiful place; don’t make me tell you all the reasons why. I could spend my whole life working on behalf of the humanities and all of the ways in which the humanities [especially the humanities vis-a-vis the longer perspectives of premodern studies] make the world a better place, and maybe that’s precisely why I think we should steal the [premodern] humanities away, take them underground, or . . . over there, somewhere. We need the university in all of its brick-and-mortar incarnations, but I also think it’s time for a kind of subter-fugitive, vagabond, gypsy para-humanities. Let’s “get lost” together, taking the humanities with us like so many suitcases, portable libraries, and sacks of diamonds. Let’s figure out inventive ways to sustain the humanities, the university, by absconding with them to the streets, alleys, market squares, ateliers, coffee shops, bookstores, wine bars, clubs, kitchens, bedrooms, galleries, dive bars, park benches, garages, living rooms, and basements. In short, let’s start over, let’s re-boot, let’s situate ourselves, like Diogenes on the outskirts of Athens, on the edges of our cities and towns, never losing sight of the places [and institutions] we love, while also saying, “fuck THIS.” Let’s get cosmopolitan; let’s embrace a radical, polyglot cosmopolitanism that enunciates a “shaggy heart,” where we will have “no fixed abode” and be “nowhere a foreigner” [Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, p. 140].
It’s late, as T.S. Eliot once said, and to paraphrase [or literally quote] Rilke, “whoever has no house now will never have a house.” This blog post is a time-stamped resignation letter: I am packing my bags and shuttering the windows of my house(s). I am storing everything in the root cellar in the case of [un-event-ful] returns. Or rather, I am acting as if everything is fine and am continuing to collect my paychecks while I am also furtively looking for the nearest exit. I am navigating a holding pattern; I am self-medicating; I am trying to wake myself up; I am just now waking up. I need allies; I need partners in [para-institutional] crimes. So this blog post is also like a love-resignation letter, or something like a “help wanted” ad:
punctum books [https://punctumbooks.com/punctum] needs volunteer proofreaders, copy editors, graphic and web designers, typesetters-formatters, software/app engineers, type-font experts, illustrator-artists, and expert reviewers [and also: benefactors]. We have more work than we can handle. That’s a good thing. Contact us at: email@example.com.
That’s also Step One. Step Two is: you tell me. Meet me outside.
3 thoughts on “Help Wanted: Steal This University”
Here is a marvelously resonant talk by Vernon Howard on change as the falling of away of everything that keeps one unsettled.
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Dear K.A.: we’ve done it! Thanks for the suggestion!