Once understood, within certain influential strands of modern critical theory, as an unambiguously exhausted resource, humanism may yet prove to be an important means of thinking about the value of literature. But how might humanism and a humanist conception of literary value be re-animated, both from within and without the context of theory? In order to revive a concept, it is useful to have some understanding of the manner of its death. One way of discrediting a category is to immobilise it - to limit its range of application and implication. Nailed as it often was/is to a form of essentialism, humanism became/becomes static and paradoxically immune to 'human' error. If the (humanist) belief in 'the nature of consciousness as always identical to itself' (Foucault 1977: 152) were absolute, then there would be no room for any category mistakes or revision. Some people may think that human beings are driven by greed; others may think that capitalism invites this particular conception of human beings. Nothing, in other words, is at risk in the kind of humanism which urges that human consciousness is always and everywhere so unmistakably and authentically itself that it cannot be mistaken for one or another 'inauthentic' inflection of it. The tendency of so-called anti-humanists to associate so-called humanism with an easy essentialism immobilises humanism and fails to do it justice.
If, moreover, humanism is irredeemably associated with 'the interests of the bourgeois class' (Belsey 1985: 7), then humanism may seem additionally ripe for either demolition or supersession. But what if humanism forms a more complex, self-critical and pluralistic tradition of thought than the caricature of it within some versions of theory allows? Karl Marx, Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Theodor Adorno, Raymond Williams, Frantz Fanon and Hélène Cixous are just some of the writers who might justifiably be described as 'humanist', but their humanism is very differently inflected, and informs very different social and political agendas. A typology of humanism is perhaps needed, one which conceives of humanism less as a singular term with pre-determined ideological effects, than as a diverse body of thought that folds in and over itself, provoking a series of questions and problems.
To advocate recognition of a diversely inflected humanism might seem to lend itself to certain poststructuralist and/or postmodern perspectives. A poststructuralist response to the call for an acknowledgement of the diversity of humanist thought might be to suggest that the concept of the human thereby becomes so differentiated as to function, like any signifier within poststructuralist thought, as an absent presence, lacking absolute self-identity. Coupled with a postmodern emphasis upon the inescapability of cultural and linguistic mediation, such a perspective might paradoxically turn an argument in support of a diverse humanism into an anti-humanist argument pointing to the inevitably constructed and illusory nature of all appeals to the human. There are two points to make here. First, I would restate my initial argument that the sign of a dead concept is that it is seen to have limited implications and applications, whereas the sign of a concept which is alive and resonant is its incorporation and mutation within diverse, sometimes conflicting, traditions of thought. The concept might thereby be put at risk, but this does not mean that we have to give up on it and declare it another casualty of a signifying system which promises presences but delivers only emptinesses. 'Good' things are worth struggling for. Second, while poststructuralism's and postmodernism's treatment of concepts of authenticity and truth as the cardinal sins of Western metaphysics encourages healthy scepticism, it does not sufficiently allow for distinctions to be made between arguably more authentic and arguably less authentic concepts of human being. Distinctions between the authentically and the inauthentically human variously inform such diverse bodies of thought as: Marxist concepts of alienation; feminist perspectives, such as Hélène Cixous', which extol the feminine as a richer way of being than the masculine; postcolonial writing, like Frantz Fanon's, which attack, from a humanist perspective, the degradations of the master/slave relationship; Romantic appeals to a 'deep self'; the civic humanism of Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Habermas, and so forth.(1) The distinction between fuller and lesser ways of being may not be so binary as to be beyond question - one thinker's authentically human may be another's inauthentically human - but the difference is nevertheless a means of affirming value from a perspective which is at once critical and reflexive.
A typology of humanist thought, which takes account of the differences within it, would also enable a re-reading of so-called 'anti-humanist' thinkers within contemporary critical theory as humanist. Rather than rigidly adhering to a diachronic narrative which understands the rigour and refinement of contemporary theory to have superseded what are often seen, from the vantage point of theory, as uncritical and outmoded affirmations of the human, contemporary theory, in at least some of its guises, might be thought of as engaging in fruitful dialogue with a re-invigorated and re-conceived humanist tradition.
As I have argued elsewhere, one way of tracing the persistence of humanist categories into the regime of modern contemporary thought is to understand certain types of theory as an attempt to overcome the long-standing opposition between signs and psyche, language and self, and objectivism and subjectivism (Mousley 2000: 8-12). If I think of myself, in accordance with the kind of humanism which theory has often attacked, as a language-independent and society-independent free agent - as the 'origin and source of meaning', as Catherine Belsey defines humanism (Belsey 1980: 7) - then there is not much reason for me to be overly concerned about language, society or history. If my conception of who I am does not seem to depend upon linguistic, social or historical processes, then such processes will not seem to matter much. It seems to me that while a good many critical theorists decentre the autonomous self and refocus attention upon language and/or history, some of them leave intact the opposition between psyche and society, or subject and signifier, by treating language and society as impersonal systems which have little or nothing to do with a still alienated psyche. However, there are other inflections of theory which decentre the autonomous self while retaining a humanist dimension. They do both of these things at once by overcoming the psyche/society opposition and returning the subject to society, language and history whilst, at the same time, returning society, language and history to the subject.
Humanising Contemporary Theory (1): Historicist Humanism
In an attempt, then, to 'humanise' contemporary theory, I shall include, under the category of historicist humanism, those modern day forms of historicist criticism, like cultural materialism and new historicism, which in distancing themselves from one kind of humanism (essentialist humanism), may have made the mistake of distancing themselves from all versions of humanism. Nevertheless, in line with the argument I want to pursue, present day historicism, in at least some of its manifestations, can be read or re-read as humanist.
Let me first deal with some of the apparent problems of reading modern materialist/historicist epistemologies in this way. The widely used Marxist dictum that social being determines consciousness and not the other way round lies at the heart of many contemporary materialist methodologies. What is meant by materialism may be disputed - is it economics or language which constitutes the basis of our material life? - but what is not so much in question is the notion that historicist approaches are materialist in the sense of being diametrically opposed to metaphysics and essentialism. As a result, the coupling together of the terms 'historicist' and 'humanist' within the same formulation may appear to be a contradiction in terms. How can humanism, aligned as it so often is only with essentialist liberal paradigms, be partnered with the anti-essentialism of contemporary historicism? Surely such a historicism, following in the wake of poststructuralism, would hold that that there is no such essential thing as the human, but only different, historically variable inscriptions of it.
This perspective, however, can be reformulated in non-essentialist humanist terms. In other words, the concept of difference can be anthropomorphicised by suggesting that what I encounter when I 'do' history, especially when I do history via literary texts, is not so much a multiplicity of 'inscriptions' as a multiplicity of 'selves'. Where words and phrases like 'inscription', 'signifying system' and 'discourse' belong to the putatively 'post-human' or anti-humanist turn taken by (some wings of) contemporary critical theory, the notion of interacting, through a literary work, with other past selves, makes of historical and cultural difference a vital experiential encounter.(2) This is what I take Fredric Jameson to mean when he writes of what he calls 'existential historicism' as a way of imagining history as the site of 'an existential experience, a galvanic and electrifying event'. Jameson's partial endorsement of existential historicism is based upon its compatibility with his own Marxist/humanist concept of the past as that which 'speaks to us about our own virtual and unrealized "human potentialities"' (Jameson 1988: 175). A past which 'speaks' to us in this powerfully affecting way is contrasted by Jameson with the 'sheer mechanical and meaningless succession of facts of empiricist historiography' (Jameson 1988: 157). What existential and Marxist versions of historicism thus do as far as Jameson is concerned is to libidinise history. The concept of historical and cultural difference is thereby humanised, in that the past has something to do with 'us' and the latent selves and ways of being that lie buried within us.
Jameson's account of existential historicism bears comparison (Jameson himself compares it) with the schizoid 'self' embraced by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Using Nietzsche as their model, Deleuze and Guatarri write:
There is no
Nietzsche-the-self, professor of philology, who suddenly loses his mind
and supposedly identifies with all sorts of strange people; rather, there
is the Nietzschean subject who passes through a series of states and identifies
these states with the names of history: ' every name in history is
I…'. The subject spreads itself out along the entire circumference
of the circle, the center of which has been abandoned by the ego.
The transcendental subject of liberal humanism is decentred, but another form of humanism, a non-essentialist humanism based on infinite libidinal identifications with historical others, takes its place. Thus the past, for Deleuze and Guattari's Nietzsche, is no mere object of disinterested contemplation by an 'impartial' historian who pushes history in the direction of an objective science. Rather, history, within humanist or existential or schizoid versions of it, is the very ground of our being. How can it not therefore become the site of a vital human investment?
The wide range of thinkers (such as Deleuze and Guattari, William Dilthey, Erich Auerbach, R. G. Collingwood and Benedetto Croce) included under Jameson's category of existential historicism, could, as I suggested at the beginning of this section, be further widened to account for present-day cultural historians working within the now fluid disciplinary boundary of 'English'. It seems to me that when cultural historians (whether new historicist or cultural materialist), whose primary training is in literature, write history, they write it along the broadly 'existential' lines suggested by Jameson. They may fly an anti-humanist flag, but the anti-humanist in question may be 'anti' one strand of humanism. Thus Jonathan Dollimore, writing from within the high period of contemporary theory's putatively anti-humanist phase, explicitly identifies as 'anti-humanist' the challenge to the 'humanist' idea that '"man" possesses some given, unalterable essence which is what makes "him" human, which is the source and essential determinant of "his" culture' (Dollimore 1984: 250). Yet, only a few pages further on, Dollimore's anti-humanism mutates into a form of humanism:
… the anti-humanism
of Foucault's variety at least does not involve the elimination of individuality,
only of 'man'. In fact it is those discourses centred around 'man' and
human nature which, historically, have regulated and repressed actual
diversity and actual human difference. To speak of the uniqueness
of an individual may mean either that s/he is contingently unlike anyone
else actually known or that s/he approximates more closely to
a normative paradigm, spiritual or natural, than anyone else who has ever,
or will, or can, exist.
The conflict, now, is not so much between humanism and anti-humanism, as between prescriptive and non-prescriptive versions of humanism. The term 'anti-humanist' could still be retained (as Dollimore himself retains it in the above quotation), but for anti-humanist we should read, as suggested earlier, 'anti' a particular form of humanism. This is perhaps a good example of the point made by Tony Davies that many so-called anti-humanist thinkers '"secrete a humanist rhetoric" that betrays their hidden affinity with that which they deny; they generally serve openly humanist ends of intellectual clarity and emancipation, articulated around a recognisable ethic of human capacity and need' (Davies 1997: 35). Davies' point is slightly different from my own main argument (about the albeit overlapping differences within the humanist tradition), for Davies suggests that the humanist rhetoric that unwittingly appears within ostensibly anti-humanist thought is the same kind of humanist rhetoric which is ostensibly being expunged. Applied to Dollimore, this would mean that the essentialist humanism which is being dismissed re-enters through the back door, as it were, via Dollimore's implicit appeal to the notion that what human beings 'essentially' crave is freedom and emancipation.
This perspective feeds into the other point made at the beginning of my essay, which is that humanism is a pluralistic tradition whose different, in this case essentialist and anti-essentialist, strands can be seen as both interacting with and reacting against each other. The differences within humanism cannot, in other words, be fully differentiated, but can instead be seen as engaging in dialogue with each other across the lines which seem to separate them. Dollimore might, according to Davies, be appealing to freedom based upon a metaphysics of human longing, but that emancipatory rhetoric takes the form of an anti-essentialist argument in support of diversity and difference.
Other cultural historians and cultural critics uncomfortable, as is Dollimore, with the humanist tag, can likewise be seen in terms of an identification/estrangement dialectic which asks us to identify, overtly or covertly, with one or another putatively recognisable human trait or longing (such as a longing for freedom), at the same time as estranging us from a single sense of the human. The type of estrangement in question, however, is itself nearly always humanised through the notion that history puts us in touch with, to quote Jameson again, 'unrealized "human potentialities"'. New historicists and cultural materialists are by and large not so much interested in alienated 'facts' - and some have been taken to task for this (3)- as in 'human interest' stories which simultaneously widen our view of the human. Humanist historicism thus does for the subject what some forms of structuralist/poststructuralist theory similarly do, which is to remove the psyche from chronic isolation and repetition and bring it back to language. To reformulate my earlier point: humanist historicism returns the psyche to history, at the same time as it thereby psychologises history. History is therefore expressive, in that it has a 'subject' who may be recognisable, in a minimalist sense, as a human subject, but history is no longer simply or confidently expressive of the single, self-repeating, transcendent consciousness of liberal humanism.
Stephen Greenblatt's brand of new historicist writing is especially adept at animating and libidinising history through his accounts of Renaissance sexuality, fantasy, role-playing, wonder and anxiety. We are encouraged to recognise in Greenblatt's writing some 'baseline' human traits - in Renaissance Self-Fashioning, for example, Greenblatt writes, anthropomorphically, of 'man's longings, anxieties and goals' (Greenblatt, 1980: 13); but these recognisable human traits are then subjected to historical specification. We are thereby afforded the pleasure of identification and the pleasure of estrangement, estrangement being the means of dis-identifying with the present in order to experience other selves from other times and places. The following passage from Renaissance Self-Fashioning exemplifies Greenblatt's approach:
A dinner party
at Cardinal Wolsey's. Years later, in the Tower, More recalled the occasion
and refashioned it in A Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation as
a 'merry tale', one of those sly jokes that interlace his most serious
work. The story reaches back to a past that, in the gathering darkness
of 1534, might well have seemed to More almost mythical, back before the
collapse of his career, the collapse of his whole world. Perhaps as important,
it reaches back to a time before More had decided to embark upon his career.
He pictures himself as an ambitious, clever young man, eager to make a
good impression, but at the same time an outsider: in the fictionalized
version, he is a Hungarian visitor to Germany. The vainglorious prelate
- transparently Wolsey - had that day made an oration so splendid in his
own estimation that he sat as if on thorns until he could hear it commended
by his guests. After casting about in vain for a discreet way of introducing
the subject, the cardinal finally asked bluntly what the company thought
of his oration. Eating and conversation came to an abrupt halt: 'Every
man was fallen in so deep a study for the finding of some exquisite praise'.
Then one by one in order, each guest brought forth his flattering speech.
Greenblatt's skills at scene setting, characterisation and the creation of intrigue are those of the realist novelist. We are being invited to identify with More and More's experience of life as we might identify with a figure and his/her situation in a novel. The initial point of entry into history is in other words through the heart and mind of a particular individual, rather than through the depersonalising idiom of signifying systems. Filtered as it is through biography, this is history with a recognisable human subject (someone 'like us'). However, this recognisable human element will subsequently be estranged by Greenblatt as he explores, equally alluringly, the specificities of Renaissance discourses of role-playing, power politics and self-fashioning.
Elsewhere, in Shakespearean Negotiations, Greenblatt writes of his 'desire to speak with the dead'. This desire, he claims, 'is a familiar, if unvoiced, motive in literary studies, a motive organized, professionalized, buried beneath thick layers of bureaucratic decorum' (Greenblatt 1988: 1). Greenblatt's conception of history, is, here, explicitly libidinised. It is history as an object of desire, rather than disinterested, de-cathected, de-humanised history removed from all 'human' concerns, including, of course, the vexed but also liberating question of what it means to be human. The 'conversation', as he calls it, that Greenblatt wants to have with the dead, images the relationship between present and past as an interactive, face-to-face relationship of one human being talking to another both across and within the differences of time (Greenblatt, 1988: 1).
Humanising Contemporary Theory (2): Civic Humanism
Contemporary critical thought which emphasises, like humanist historicism, the interdependence of self and society, psyche and signs might also be thought of re-constituting, from its origins in classical models, a form of 'civic' humanism. While figures like Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt seem more obvious candidates for the category of civic humanism, the emphasis of some contemporary theorists upon language both as a social medium and as a medium for the expression of subjectivity can be seen as an attempt to re-humanise the otherwise alienated and depersonalised realm of society.
From the explicitly civic humanist perspectives of Habermas and Arendt, the authentically human does not involve the shedding of social and linguistic identity in the name of a replenishing return to some lost origin of nature or the body, or to some thoroughly interiorised source of creativity, for we are primarily social/linguistic beings whose humanity is diminished through our exclusion from public life. At the same time, both Habermas and Arendt are keen to retain concepts of uniqueness and individual creativity, for these concepts make of communication, which for Arendt and Habermas is the cornerstone of meaningful collective life, a dynamic and interactive process. Arendt, for example, in The Human Condition, claims that through 'speech and action … men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct'; in contrast with the mere facticity and givenness of bodily difference, speech and action rest 'upon initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human' (Arendt 1958: 176). However, because this human impetus towards differentiation is primarily achieved through and in communication with others, it is understood as contributing towards, rather than necessarily detracting from, a vibrant, if unpredictable, 'body politic' (Arendt 1958: 191).
Arendt's civic humanism can thus be understood as both reacting against and as fruitfully interacting with another form of humanism, namely liberal humanism, which places value unconditionally upon the individual and the autonomy of the individual. In Postmetaphysical Thinking, Habermas, drawing on the work of George Herbert Mead, likewise negotiates between the rival claims of subjectivity and an intersubjectivity which points in the direction of a civic humanist ideal. Whereas 'communicative action', according to Habermas, relocates the liberal individual within an intersubjective setting where recognition of a person's personhood is dependent upon others, 'strategic action' withdraws the individual from a public into a private realm:
… an identity
that always remains mine, namely my self-understanding as an autonomously
acting and individuated being, can stabilize itself only if I find recognition
as a person, and as this person. Under conditions of strategic action,
the self of self-determination and self-realization slips out of intersubjective
relations. The strategic actor no longer draws from an intersubjectively
shared lifeworld; having himself become worldless, as it were, he stands
over and against the objective world and makes decisions solely according
to standards of subjective preference. He does not rely therein upon recognition
by others. Autonomy is then transformed into freedom of choice ( Willkürfreiheit),
and the individuation of the socialized subject is transformed into the
isolation of a liberated subject who possesses himself.
Avoiding the anti-humanist 'snare', as Habermas calls it, of the 'abstractive fallacies' perpetuated by those forms of structuralism which elevate 'anonymous forms of language to a transcendent status' and downgrade 'subjects and their speech to something merely accidental', Habermas attempts to bring language and subjectivity together without impoverishing either the old paradigm of consciousness or the new paradigm of language (Habermas 1992: 47). Habermas' work is thus another example of a pluralistic humanist tradition critically re-working and re-orienting itself in the light of competing claims to the authentically human.
While other contemporary theorists may resist the humanist tag because of their metonymic substitution of one part of the humanist tradition (the liberal tradition) for the whole of it, the widespread, semiotically inspired insistence upon language as the ground of being can have the effect of restoring meaning and value to the symbolic realm. When Terence Hawkes, for example, writing at one of the high points of structuralism, claims that 'the true nature of reality may be said to lie not in things themselves, but in the relationships which we construct, and then perceive, between them' (Hawkes 1977: 17), he is arguably dis-alienating 'objects' and drawing them back into the world of 'human' processes which are identical, from a structuralist viewpoint, with linguistic processes. Through the insistence upon the notion that, to quote Roland Barthes, 'it is language which speaks, not the author' and 'only language acts, "performs" and not "me"' (Barthes 1977: 143), structuralism and/or poststructuralism may have been responsible for some of the more vociferous pronouncements of the death of the human, but this perception of structuralism should be set alongside the 'civic humanist' perception that we are naturally linguistic beings who have the capacity to make and remake ourselves and the world through symbolic exchange and interaction.
Humanising Contemporary Theory (3): Spiritual Humanism
Civic and historicist models are not the only models of humanism which can be used to re-read some of the work of contemporary theorists. Reeking as it does of essentialism and metaphysics, 'spirituality' is not a word commonly associated with post-foundational, post-metaphysical, post-essentialist thinkers. While civic humanism is itself a kind of essentialism, in that it posits human beings as essentially social/linguistic beings, this form of essentialism is entirely compatible with anti-essentialist conceptions of language as process and deferral. However the kind of essentialism which the word 'spirituality' appears to muster, namely the notion that human beings have a soul or spiritual essence, would appear to pass some way beyond modern theory's limits of toleration. If, according to the constructionist theories to which much modern critical thought is in one way or another indebted, the transcendent subject of liberal humanism is based upon a repression of its social and linguistic situatedness, then constructionist theory has its own repressed 'other' in the shape of a metaphysics that cannot be redeemed by essentialising language or history as the ground of human being. Nevertheless, there is again a continuity of spiritual or quasi-spiritual humanist thought which improbably bridges the seemingly unbridgeable gulf separating modern thinkers from their spiritually inclined forebears.
Despite its negative association with metaphysics, there is no need to treat spiritual humanism as any more or less essentialist than any other kind. 'Spirituality' has taken markedly different forms and to reify it is once again to immobilise it and fail to do it justice. The appearances and re-appearances of the spiritual within an increasingly secularised Western culture might include: certain forms of aesthetic experience; claims made about the special power of revelation of the great work of art; Walter Benjamin's concept of messianic history; Romantic or Modernist moments of epiphany; Russian Formalist notions of defamiliarisation; 'alternative' states of consciousness; magical realism; and, more recently, what Lyotard has referred to as the 'unpresentable' (Lyotard 1984: 82).
Spirituality can be separated, although not absolutely separated, into more or less knowable, more or less institutionalised versions of it. When written as paradoxically unwritable, spirituality is that which exceeds language, is that which cannot be named. The spiritual self is then a self which is de-materialised and de-contextualised. Where civic humanism places emphasis on communication and communicative action, this kind of spiritual humanism embraces the incommunicability, or only partial communicability, of an intangible and therefore alluring otherness. Conceiving of the self, Hamlet-like, as a mysterious and unfathomable interiority, this 'formless form' of the spiritual proposes a 'depth' model of human being, which imagines a spirituality from we have been separated, but to which we might return. Consciousness thereby becomes divided, the spiritual becoming a sign of that which remains inaccessible to consciousness. Insofar as this kind of spirituality has affinities with Romantic concepts of the sublime, then it reminds us, as Terry Eagleton writes of the Kantian aesthetic, of the limits of 'complacent subject-centredness, causing us to feel the pain of incompletion and unassuaged desire'. Yet, as Eagleton continues, without this decentring of the subject, 'we would never be stirred out of ourselves' (Eagleton 1990: 89-90). In taking us out of or beyond ourselves, this nameless form of spirituality thus operates in the way that Jameson's 'existential' historicism operates, which is to estrange and decentre in order to revitalise. By contrast, institutionalised spirituality provides the self with more of a codified language, but one which is always susceptible to un-coding or re-coding due to the veiled or semi-veiled presence of the divine within the human.
Although, as I have already suggested, these more or less mystical versions of spiritual humanism might justifiably be thought of as being utterly at odds with the broadly materialist epistemologies of modern thought, it is instructive to compare the work of an 'old-fashioned' spiritual humanist writer like C. S. Lewis with some of the poststructuralist writing of Roland Barthes. This is Barthes on the difference between what he calls the 'text of pleasure' and the 'text of bliss':
Text of pleasure: the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language.
Now the subject
who keeps the two texts in his field and in his hands the reins of pleasure
and bliss is an anachronic subject, for he simultaneously and contradictorily
participates in the profound hedonism of all culture (which permeates
him quietly under cover of an art de vivre shared by the old books)
and in the destruction of that culture: he enjoys the consistency of his
selfhood (that is his pleasure) and seeks its loss (that is his bliss).
He is a subject split twice over, doubly perverse.
And this is C. S. Lewis on the value of literature:
We want to
see with other eyes, to imagine with other imaginations, to feel with
other hearts, as well as with our own. We are not content to be Leibnitzian
monads. We demand windows. Literature as Logos is a series of windows,
even of doors. One of the things we feel after reading a great work is
'I have got out'. Or from another point of view, 'I have got in'; pierced
the shell of some other monad and discovered what it is like inside.
There seems to be little difference between Barthes' 'text of bliss' and C. S. Lewis' 'Literature', for both make possible a loss of self which, for Lewis, is at the same time an expansion. The difference between the passages is that where Lewis uses a recognisably humanist vocabulary, based on a sense of shared human needs and desires ('We want', 'We demand'), Barthes' vocabulary exports human attributes to the text ('Text of pleasure', 'Text of bliss'). In line with the structuralist/poststructuralist prioritisation of language and textuality, the anthropomorphicising of the text attributes language, rather than human beings, with agency, and bypasses Lewis' humanist willingness to confront, head-on, the issue of human needs and wants, which, in this case, are based upon the desire for transcendence. In Barthes' world, texts do things to people and produce in them certain responses, whereas in Lewis' world, people look to literature to satisfy certain pre-existing (spiritual) needs. Lewis also writes of Literature as a positively enriching experience - of the 'enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors' (Lewis 1961: 140) - whereas Barthes is more reticent on the issue of human value. Nevertheless, the different routes pursued by Lewis and Barthes lead more or less to the same destination, which is that certain texts defamiliarise the reader's existing world and induce a state of loss and/or expansion. These are, despite Barthes' disavowal of an explicitly humanist vocabulary, recognisably humanist defences of the value of literature. While Lewis' position, more than Barthes', can be fairly easily assimilated to the old idea that literature is a pleasurable form of education, to which denial of access constitutes an impoverishment, the Barthes passage also contains a parenthetical - and somewhat parodic - reference to the educative project of 'the old books' to instruct readers in the art of living.
In Lewis' case, the education in question is quasi-spiritual, literature being the means of transcending the here and now in the name of a 'higher self', an enlarged state of being: 'in reading great literature', writes Lewis, 'I become a thousand men and yet remain myself … Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do' (Lewis 1961: 141). Barthes does not use an overtly metaphysical or spiritual register, but his implied counsel that the 'text of bliss' allows us to unlearn what we have learned and so de-contextualise ourselves points in the direction of a kind of transcendence. So, too, do his later hedonistic arguments against the 'policing' of pleasure:
No sooner has a word been said, somewhere, about the pleasure of the text, than two policemen are ready to jump on you: the political policeman and the psychoanalytical policeman: futility and/or guilt, pleasure is either idle or vain, a class notion or an illusion. (Barthes 1990: 57)
If the text of bliss allows momentary release from historical determinations and pre-existing psychoanalytic categories, then the 'two policemen' return us to them without allowing us even a moment's release into a 'blissful' or, in Lewis' terms, transcendent state of being. Barthes, in hedonistic mood, would probably also include, as a killjoy figure, the policeman called Historicism - and its present day pseudonyms Cultural Materialism, New Historicism and Cultural Criticism - on the basis that they, too, return us to culture and materiality without so much as a glance in the direction of their repressed 'others', bliss or spirituality. I have shown how present-day historicisms can themselves be read within another humanist context (to further substantiate my general point that humanism is a richer and more complex tradition than has been allowed), but we can let Barthes' 'spiritual humanist' antagonism to political criticism, which might include historicist criticism, stand for the moment, on the basis that spiritual humanism is in some respects incompatible with the humanism inscribed within historicist epistemologies.
The final point which I want to make about the differences and similarities between the styles of spiritual humanism of Barthes and Lewis is that Lewis casts himself more obviously in the role of spiritual guide and teacher. In accordance with the position adopted in 'The Death of the Author' (Barthes 1977), and in accordance, too, with the idea that the blissful text induces a state of disorientation, Barthes' authorial presence and direction are muted, and his frequently enigmatic prose is left open for the reader to interpret. The point I want to conclude from this is that whereas Lewis expresses a confidence that his brand of spirituality can be passed on and partly institutionalised (by reading certain great works of literature), Barthes' relinquishing of the role of teacher, together with the anti-representationalism implied by the concept of 'bliss', make of spirituality a more private, more subjective, more unpredictable and more mysterious affair. This is possibly because organised, partly codified and practically life-informing spirituality has become, in Barthes' time, less organised and less codifiable. Hedonism is the word which Barthes uses to evoke those euphoric moments of jouissance which cannot be named.
Despite Barthes' probable antagonism, in The Pleasure of the Text, to historicist forms of criticism, Lewis' and Barthes' aesthetics of loss and/or transcendence bear comparison with historicist humanism's embrace of the concept of hidden or repressed human potentialities which can be recovered though an anthropomorphicised engagement with history. The idea of losing oneself in order to find oneself, of shedding cultural and linguistic 'trappings' in order to experience a submerged spirituality, may not quite correspond to, for example, Deleuze and Guattari's Nietzschean model of decentred subjectivity, but there is sufficient overlap to consolidate the point that humanist thought does not separate itself out into fully differentiated categories, but constitutes, instead, a pluralistic tradition which continually re-works and re-orients itself. Neither does the humanist tradition, thus conceived, suddenly stop with the 'moment' of contemporary critical theory.
Literature/Theory/Humanism: De-specialising the Text
It is perhaps unsurprising that many thinkers associated with contemporary theory and contemporary historicisms, who could be described, despite their discomfort with the term, as humanist (or, using Jameson's terminology, as 'existential'), should also be literary critics. Literature's long-standing association with humanism and/or with questions of human value may have been challenged in recent years, but there is the strong possibility that those 'old-fashioned' literary critics who attributed writers with humanist insight were not simply misguided. Literature does arguably 'reflect' human life in such a way as to elicit some recognition of basic human traits and longings, at the same time as it extends, enriches and diversifies our conception of the human. The persistent interest of cultural historians in questions of subjectivity, selfhood and identity formation are in this respect only following a lead already taken by literature's own concerns.
Although it is not overwhelmingly difficult to read humanism or humanisms into contemporary critical theory, I have nevertheless found it something of a challenge, due to the submerged presence, within contemporary thought, of humanist vocabularies. If there is an urge in me to read books in terms of being a human being, then that urge is often not explicitly encouraged. The notion that literature might still be a valuable resource for thinking about questions of human experience and human value is thwarted, not only because of theory's perception that humanism is irredeemably tainted by essentialism, but also because of the further specialisation and professionalisation, in our own time, of literary theory in particular, and perhaps, of intellectual work in general. In Erasmus' Praise of Folly, itself a humanist text, the narrator Folly ridicules medieval scholastics for their supersubtle intellectualism which results in pedantic overinterpretation of the Bible. The satire on their 'subtle refinement of subtleties' depends upon the recognition that the theologians' professional over-concern with technicalities has taken them further and further away from the spirit of the Bible and its perceived relevance to human experience (Erasmus 1971: 156). Erasmus, via Folly, is advocating a re-alignment of religion such that it will take root in the hearts and minds of 'ordinary', non-professional Christians. Erasmus wants a Bible which is accessible, and which speaks to people's need, as he sees it, for meaning, purpose and sustenance. He has little use for a Bible which has become the exclusive property of professional critics. Erasmus wants theologians to come out of their ivory towers (or monastic equivalent) and proselytise, as a way of reversing the tendency for ideas to become so specialised that they cannot be transported into constituencies beyond the realm of professional interpreters.
Perhaps there are lessons here for us. The sense of a loss of a human referent around which to gather is exacerbated, in our own time, by those highly specialised forms of intellectual labour, called 'theory', whose self-enclosed linguistic systems can often seem impenetrable to the outsider or novice. The postmodern text beloved of certain types of theory likewise refers us, not to an outside 'human' or other type of referent, but to the complex internal processes of the construction and deconstruction of meaning. The result has been a loss of precisely those contexts and constituencies that theory wished to re-instate.
So how might a non-essentialist form of humanist criticism be rehabilitated? The common strand which threads through the different humanisms I have been exploring would appear to lead to the conclusion that we might profitably think of the 'aesthetic' realm in terms of a dialectic of identification and estrangement. Such a model would permit readers to do certain things. Dealing first with the principle of identification, it would allow them to do what many 'ordinary' readers seem to want to do, which is to be 'spoken to', in some meaningful way, by the literary work. It would allow them to make simple as well as more complex acts of recognition: 'that's me' or 'that's us' or 'I recognise that human experience of love or friendship or self or fear of mortality or feeling of being trapped or oppressed' or 'I recognise that human need for spirituality or play or laughter or release'. Practically, this might mean starting, as many literary texts themselves start, with those old-fashioned humanist categories of character and empathy. It would mean looking for putative signs of the human, looking for 'ostensibly' human traits and desires which are, in Greenblatt's phrase, 'organized, professionalized, buried beneath thick layers of bureaucratic decorum'. Greenblatt is writing here about professional literary criticism and criticism's obfuscation of 'human' motives. But might not something similar be said of literary works themselves? In other words, literary works themselves might be similarly attempting to 'salvage' one or another version of the human from its obfuscation or endangered existence. If this is true, then Greenblatt and other modern critics who can be read as humanists, are again only doing what literature itself already does, which is to excavate, or try to excavate, the 'human'. If, as Greenblatt implies, modern critics, due to their professionalism, have forgotten or repressed their putative humanism, then this would explain why humanism can only be read back into theory with difficulty.
Literature's own preoccupation with salvaging the 'human' in the face of its endangered existence or obfuscation can be exemplified by glancing briefly at John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. The choice of text is not entirely arbitrary, as the historical remoteness of the play might justifiably appear to warrant an approach which requires 'specialist' historical knowledge of, say, the Renaissance theatre, playing conditions, dramatic conventions, the relationship of the theatre to civic and religious authorities, rhetoric, religion, the ideology of the court and court spectacle, and the transformation of aristocratic into bourgeois culture. This 'required knowledge' might also be supplemented, on an undergraduate programme, by initiating students into some appreciation of the differences between new historicist and cultural materialist approaches, and the differences between these and other old and new critical approaches to Renaissance culture in general and to the play in particular. I am, of course, caricaturing matters a little, but the caricatured point I am making bears out Greenblatt's point about 'thick layers' of specialised knowledge coming between us and the 'human'.
The Duchess of Malfi is similarly preoccupied with salvaging the human from the threat of erasure. A religious way of putting this, which is appropriate to the play and to the culture to which it belongs - I am not advocating total de-specialisation - is that The Duchess of Malfi understands the 'salvage' of the human as the salvation of the human soul. The character in the play who mostly embodies this 'human' concern with the endangered state of his soul is Bosola. Bosola is that figure, recognisable from numerous other Renaissance plays - again I am not advocating or hopefully practising total de-specialisation - who represents the plight of the 'tool villain'. He is a figure who sells his mind, body and soul to a corrupt court, a figure who is therefore in danger of becoming a total cipher, a vacuous and vacant space upon which Ferdinand can 'write' more or less what he will. 'I am your creature' (Webster 1985: I.ii.208), he tells Ferdinand, and Ferdinand duly proceeds to use him as part of the surveillance system which he operates to monitor that other arguably endangered 'human' attribute, embodied in the Duchess, namely 'freedom of choice'.
The play thus invites us to 'recognise' the disastrous effects of power upon individuals and to worry, as Bosola himself increasingly worries, about his alienation from his 'better self'. What becomes of the human, understood in this play in terms of a spiritual/moral humanism, when the supposedly 'inalienable' human qualities of compassion are shown, in reality, to be alienable? The court robs Bosola of qualities which he eventually sees, and the play itself sees, as valuable and essential to human life and human well-being. Although Bosola is partly restored to his better self, and discards his 'painted honour' (Webster 1985: IV.ii.330), the play, via Bosola and others, testifies to the endangered existence of its own particular version of the human and asks us to understand the need for its recuperation.
The aesthetics of identification which the play employs thus calls upon us to recognise a particular kind of moral and spiritual humanism. Given the widely acclaimed power of the work of art to speak beyond its immediate cultural context, we might be rightly or wrongly seduced into thinking of 'morality' in essentialist, universalising terms. We all recognise, we might say, the moral concerns of a play like The Duchess of Malfi. But the play also asks us to recognise another kind of 'human' concern or dilemma, which turns upon the notion that the human, however defined, is simultaneously in danger of being lost. This is the point where the estrangement part of the identification/estrangement dialectic comes into play, for the play begs recognition of the essentiality of a spiritual or moral self, which is paradoxically shown to be alienable. There are two rather different moves which then could be made. One would be to say that Bosola is dehumanised and keep the moral/spiritual humanism of the play more or less in tact by maintaining it as a norm which can be used to measure Bosola's and others' deviation. The other move would be to begin to humanise 'deviation' or deviance itself - or in religious terms, erring - and explore the dangerous allure, in The Duchess of Malfi and other Renaissance plays - of villainy and transgression. The Duchess of Malfi can thus be seen as a literary work which provides for its readers/audience a source of 'deep' humanist insight, in that it is concerned with salvaging the human which it is also responsible for putting at risk and/or for enlarging.
What the concept of estrangement, in the way that I have been using the term, does not do, is to estrange or distance the play totally from 'human' concerns, including, once again, the concern with what being human means, has meant, might mean. 'De-specialising' the text involves removing it to some extent from those specialised forms of theoretical and historical processing, whose subdued humanism does arguably alienate the human impact of great works of art to the point of non-recognition. An example is a sophisticated and illuminating recent article on The Duchess of Malfi by Andrea Henderson, who argues, along with other recent historicist critics, that the play represents a conflict between aristocratic and bourgeois ideologies. While both, according to Henderson, are implicated in an emerging market economy, manifested, at the level of the subject, in the theatricalisation of identity, aristocratic and bourgeois characters can be differentiated on the basis that, unlike the aristocrats, the bourgeois characters also cultivate an anti-theatrical ethic. 'Antitheatrical prejudice', writes Henderson:
is a sign of resistance to the extension of market relations at the same time that it reflects the ascendancy of a market-based model of identity. Absorption in the theatrical is dangerous for all, but those still devoted to the ways of the old order make the particularly dangerous mistake of failing to recognise that (in a market economy) one must always look beneath or beyond the shows one sees.
in The Duchess of Malfi aristocratic display not only inhibits
the development and expression of identity in its viewers but also discourages
self-understanding in its practitioners.
Barthes, or at least the Barthes of The Pleasure of the Text, might call this form of criticism a form of policing, in that it legislates against any possible experience of 'bliss', by cutting straight to what is perceived to be the main business of criticism, which is the historicist account of the ideology or ideologies of the text. The historicist drive to put texts in their ideological places is likewise at the expense of that other form of 'existential' historicism which would allow a more dialogic, more interactive exchange to take place between human being and human being.
English and the Return to History
If the current state of English indicates that 'theory' has largely been relinquished in favour of a return to history, then it is important to theorise and debate the nature of that return. The partially occluded term in the analysis which I have thus far offered is Romanticism, and the subjectivist epistemology with which Romanticism has traditionally been associated. Insofar as 'history', mediated by literary critics, still has consciousness and, to be sure, the discontents of consciousness at its centre, the kind of history in question is continuous with both the subjectivism of Romanticism, and with Romanticism's decentring of the subject via the sublime. Although recent demystifications of Romantic ideology tend to focus, as Paul Hamilton writes, on Romantic internalisation as the 'bowdlerized translation of external political forces' (Hamilton 1992: 15), Romanticism can nevertheless be seen as persisting in the kind of humanist historiography which seeks to return the subject to history and politics, but without, thereby, losing sight of the mental and affective components of history. History may no longer be seen, along Hegelian lines, as the movement of the human spirit towards self-realisation, but it is arguably still, in the hands of literary historians, an anthropomorphic enterprise, even as it seeks to estrange us from a single sense of the human.
I am grateful to Jane Dowson for nimbly and incisively commenting upon several draft versions of this essay, to Martin Halliwell who has also had a significant influence upon my thinking, and, as ever, to Debbie Mousley for everything.
1. See, as examples of the different humanisms within Marxist, feminist and postcolonial traditions respectively: Theodor Adorno (1974) Minima Moralia, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott, London: New Left Books; Hélène Cixous (1996) 'The Laugh of the Medusa', in Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron (eds.), New French Feminisms, Brighton: Harvester; Frantz Fanon (1986) Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann, London: Pluto. Discussion of Arendt (1958) and Habermas (1992) follows. (Back)
2. A longer and differently focussed version of some of the following discussion of historicism appears in Mousley (2000), 132-43. (Back)
3. See, for example, Lisa Jardine, 'Strains of Renaissance Reading', English Literary Renaissance 25 (1995), 289-306. (Back)
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Mousley, Andy (2000) Renaissance Drama and Contemporary Literary Theory, London: Macmillan.
John Webster (1985) The Duchess of Malfi, ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan, London: A & C Black.
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