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HUMANISTIC DISCOURSE AND

THE OTHERS, J. Hillis Miller


ABSTRACT
This essay focuses on the uestion of otherness as crucial for
!iscussions of culture an! hu"anistic !iscourse. In !e#elo$in% an
i!ea of the non&conce$t of the Other, it su""ari'es articulations of
otherness in ()#inas, (acan, Derri!a, an! !e Man, a"on% others.
In conclusion, it a!!resses the institutional situation of En%lish
!e$art"ents in the Unite! States.

The $hrase *hu"anistic !iscourse+ soun!s innocently !escri$ti#e.
Ne#ertheless, each ,or! -e%s a lot of uestions. No !ou-t that is
,hy the ,or! is $ut in scare uotes in the !escri$tion of our
$ro.ect. Thou%h +hu"anistic !iscourse+ can -e ta/en si"$ly to
!esi%nate the lan%ua%es of the hu"anities as o$$ose! to those of
the social sciences or the natural sciences, ne#ertheless the ,or!
*hu"anistic+ i"$lies that all "en an! ,o"en of all nations at all
ti"es share a co""on essence. This essence !istin%uishes the"
fro" ani"als or inani"ate o-.ects. They are all hu"an -ein%s.
This $a$er is an atte"$t to reflect on ,hat follo,s if there is no
such co""on essence "a/in% *us+ all hu"an -ein%s sharin% the
earth to%ether. Su$$ose there ,ere no *us+ that "i%ht %i#e a
!efina-le unity an! "eanin% to the ,or! *hu"anistic+0
The ,or! *!iscourse,+ thou%h it too see"s neutral enou%h, is
eually $ro-le"atic. 1ocusin% on it ten!s to %i#e $ri"acy to
lan%ua%e as constituti#e of culture. Our increasin%ly #isual culture
"ay $ut that $ri"acy in uestion. 1or -etter or ,orse fe,er an!
fe,er $eo$le ha#e their sense of the"sel#es an! their sense of
-elon%in% to a co""unity !eter"ine! e2clusi#ely or e#en
$re!o"inantly -y lan%ua%e. Tele#ision, fil", #i!eo, the $ictures in
ne,s$a$ers an! "a%a'ines, $o$ular "usic, often in #i!eo for" 3
these "ore an! "ore "a/e *us+ in the 4est, an! in the rest of the
,orl! too, ,hat ,e are. Rea!in% no#els or $oe"s has less an! less
i"$ortance any,here. 1e,er an! fe,er cultures aroun! the ,orl!
ha#e not -een !ecisi#ely affecte! -y these ne, "e!ia. So so"e
$on!erous $hrase li/e *hu"anistic si%n syste"s+ "i%ht ha#e -een
-etter, e#en if *,e+ coul! ha#e s,allo,e! *hu"anistic.+
*Discourse,+ "oreo#er, transfor"s the lan%ua%e of $oetry, no#els,
other "e!ia, an! the criticis" of the" into so"ethin% that can -e
hel! at ar"5s len%th an! analy'e!, "a!e the o-.ect of a co%niti#e
in#esti%ation, as in *!iscourse analysis.+ It "ay -e that the "ost
i"$ortant feature of ,hat ,e are callin% in this conference
*hu"anistic !iscourse+ 3 let us say in shorthan! -oth literature or
$hiloso$hy an! lan%ua%e a-out the", is not that it %i#es /no,le!%e
or that it can -e /no,n -ut that it !oes so"ethin%. This so"ethin%
that is !one ,e !o not $erha$s so "uch know as bring about 6$$.
7&86 -y rea!in%. If rea!in%, ,ritin%, or tal/in% in *hu"anistic
!iscourse+ is an act of !oin% rather than /no,in%, it follo,s that
*,e+ shoul! ta/e res$onsi-ility for this !oin%, as ,e "ust for any
act, e#en thou%h ,e "ay not clearly /no, ,hat ,e are !oin%.
4hat ,oul! it "ean for *9hu"anistic5 9!iscourse5+ if hu"anity ,ere
ra!ically hetero%eneous, not totali'a-le, other to itself0 It ,oul!
"ean, for one thin%, that the *s$ace -et,een+ is not the %a$
-et,een one culture an! another or -et,een one !iscourse ,ithin
a sin%le culture an! another -ut insi!e, ,ithin, fissurin% any enitity
that "ay -e sin%le! out as ha#in% a $utati#e unity, inclu!in% each
sin%le *self+ ,ith a cultural i!entity, each cultural ,or/, lin%uistic
or other,ise, $ro!uce! -y the self or -y a co""unity of the", each
co""unity, ethnic %rou$, or nation, e#en hu"anity itself ta/en as
a #ast heterono"ous non&,hole. The ,or! *other+ in "y
for"ulation *other to itself+ is a clue to -e follo,e!.
The ,or! or the conce$t of *the other+ is use! in "any !ifferent
an! -y no "eans co"$ati-le ,ays in current hu"anistic !iscourse.
Just ,hat are those ,ays0 They are easiest to thin/ of as
$ersonifie! in a series of ,ell&/no,n na"es. These are na"es to
con.ure ,ith in current theory an! criticis", $ersonifications of
$ositions that e2cee! any one $erson an! that !o not the"sel#es
ha#e the unity ,e associate ,ith $ersonality of $ersonhoo!. I %i#e
these na"es $ell&"ell, in no $articular or!er, neither hierarchical,
nor lo%ical, nor e#en chronolo%ical.
1or E""anuel ()#inas *the other+ is an a-solute trancen!ence,
*-eyon! -ein%,+ ,ho lea#es traces of itself or hi"self in the face of
the other $erson. ()#inas says traces, not si%ns. A si%n
$resu$$oses the e2istence an! a#aila-ility of its referent. A trace is
a catachresis :thou%h ()#inas !oes not use this ,or!; for
so"ethin% or so"eone I can ne#er confront !irectly. He or it
-elon%s to *a $ast a-solutely -y%one+ :<7=;.
1or Jacues (acan, in a cele-rate! for"ulation, *the unconscious
is the !iscourse of the other.+ This $resence of the other ,ithin "y
!e$ths, out of "y si%ht, sets u$ those trian%ular 6$$. 8&=6 (acanian
relations in ,hich the letter circulates a"on% three $ersons. (acan
has e2$resse! this circulation as the la, of the three ostriches> one
,ith its hea! -urie! in the san!, the secon! thin/in% he or she is
therefore in#ulnera-le, ,hile the thir! cal"ly $luc/s the
tailfeathers of the secon!. This la, is in#esti%ate! in (acan5s essay
on ?oe5s *The ?urloine! (etter.+ That story is a letter that has -een
$asse! aroun! fro" critic to critic in conte"$orary theory> fro"
?oe to @au!elaire to (acan to Jacues Derri!a to @ar-ara Johnson
to others, in a ceaseless !isse"ination. 4hat is "ost $ro-le"atic
a-out (acan5s ,ritin% "i%ht -e econo"ically $hrase! -y as/in%
,hether the *other+ is really *other+ for (acan, or ,hether, for hi",
in Derri!a5s $hrase, the letter al,ays reaches its !estination, that
is, can -e -rou%ht out in the o$en, $inne! !o,n to a !efinite
"eanin%, for all to rea!, or at least for its !estine! reci$ient to
rea!. 4hen this ha$$ens the other is assi"ilate!, -eco"es the
sa"e, or returns to the sa"e.
1or Jacues Derri!a, on the other han!, as he says, the letter ne#er
reaches its !estination, e#en thou%h, li/e a $ostcar!, it is e2$ose!
,here all can rea! it. The letter is con!e"ne! to ,an!er
inter"ina-ly not so "uch in its $lurisi%nificance as in its a$oretic
in!eter"inacy of "eanin% an! a!!ressee. 1or Derri!a, as he says,
*Tout autre est tout autre.+ The notion of otherness has
fun!a"ental i"$ortance fro" one en! of Derri!a5s ,or/ to the
other, e#en ,hen it is %i#en other na"es, or %li"$se! in !ifferent
,ays, for e2a"$le in the reference of *la !iff)rance+ to a $ast that
ne#er occurre!, or in the e2$loration in *1ors+ of ,hat it "eans to
s$ea/ of an e#ent that too/ $lace ,ithout e#er ha#in% ta/en $lace
an! that has -rou%ht it a-out that the 4olf"an is haunte! -y a
!ea!&ali#e -o!y in a cry$t in his unconscious. It ,oul! -e a lon%
tre/ to trac/ the ?rotean other throu%h all the !i#ersity of Derri!a5s
,or/. Three recent essays confront the uestion of the other
!irectly> the inter#ie, ,ith Jean&(uc Nancy, the title essay
in Psych: Inventions de lautre, an! Derri!a5s -oo/ on
!eath, Apories. In the latter Derri!a $atiently !e"onstrates that
Hei!e%%er5s thou%ht a-out !eath in its relation to Dasein is
un!er"ine! -y an a$oria. If the otherness of !eath is ,holly other
it cannot -e use! as a !istin%uishin% feature of Dasein. If !eath is
the $ossi-ility of an i"$ossi-ility, then it is 6$$. =&A6 i"$ossi-le to
say anythin% "ore a-out it than that. E#en to say that is too "uch,
since as an a$oria it is an i"$asse in s$eech an! thou%ht, "ar/in%
all the ,ay in thou%ht that has -een tra#erse! to %et to it ,ith the
si%n not of a *Hol',e%+ -ut of a *Dea! En!.+
Richar! Bearney as/e! Derri!a in an inter#ie, in CDAC> *4hat
then of the uestion of lan%ua%e as reference0 Can lan%ua%e as
"utation or "onstrosity refer to anythin% other than itself0+ To
this Derri!a ans,ere!>
It is totally false to su%%est that !econstruction is a sus$ension of
reference. Deconstruction is al,ays !ee$ly concerne! ,ith the
9other5 of lan%ua%e. I ne#er cease to -e sur$rise! -y critics ,ho see
"y ,or/ as a !eclaration that there is nothin% -eyon! lan%ua%e,
that ,e are i"$risone! in lan%ua%eE it is, in fact, sayin% the
o$$osite. The critiue of lo%ocentrisi" is a-o#e all else the search
for the 9other5 an! the 9other of lan%ua%e.5F Certainly
!econstruction tries to sho, that the uestion of reference is "uch
"ore co"$le2 an! $ro-le"atic than tra!itional theories su$$ose!.
It e#en as/s ,hether our ter" 9reference5 is entirely a!uate for
!esi%natin% the 9other.5 The other, ,hich is -eyon! lan%ua%e an!
,hich su""ons lan%ua%e, is $erha$s not a 9referent5 in the nor"al
sense ,hich lin%uists ha#e attache! to this ter". @ut to !istance
oneself thus fro" the ha-itual structure of reference, to challen%e
or co"$licate our co""on assu"$tions a-out it, !oes not a"ount
to sayin% that there is nothin% -eyon! lan%ua%e.F I totally refuse
the la-el of nihilis" ,hich has -een ascri-e! to "e an! "y
A"erican collea%ues. Deconstruction is not an enclosure in
nothin%ness, -ut an o$enness to,ar!s the other.GCH
6$$. A&D6
The -oo/ -y Nicholas A-raha" an! Maria Toro/ on the 4olf"an
is the occasion of Derri!a5s in#enti#e co""entary in *1ors.+ 1or
A-raha" an! Toro/ the other is characteristically associate! ,ith
%hosts, "elancholy, an! hauntin%. In another essay they $ro$ose
the e2traor!inarily $ro#ocati#e $ossi-ility that Ha"let is haunte!
not -y his father5s %host, -ut -y his !ea! father5s unconscious. The
latter %oes on li#in% as a cry$tic inha-itant, neither !ea! nor ali#e,
in Ha"let5s o,n unconscious an! causes "uch $ertur-ation in his
conscious thou%hts an! feelin%s. Each of us, it "ay -e, is haunte!
-y the unconscious of the other.
1or 1rant' 1anon, E!,ar! Sai!, an! innu"era-le other culti#ators
of the fiel! of cultural stu!ies to!ay, the ter" *other+ na"es the
racial, class, %en!ere!, or national other. This cultural other is
necessarily $osite! as the %roun! for the !o"inance of the
he%e"onic culture. This other that I $osit in or!er to assert "y
o,n su$eriority is al,ays a caricature or $aro!y, shot throu%h ,ith
i!eolo%ical lies, .ust as is the sense of "yself or of "y nation,
culture, or society. Ne#ertheless, this i!eolo%ical i"a%e of the
otherness of the other has %reat $o,er. It is use! to .ustify the "ost
inhu"an acts of cruelty, ethnic cleansin% in @osnia, for e2a"$le, or
the horrors of the Shoah.
Jean&1ranIois (yotar!5s ter" *!ifferen!+ na"es an irre!uci-le
!ifference -et,een one $erson or %rou$ an! another. As o$$ose!
to JJr%en Ha-er"as, for ,ho" !ialo%ue has as its hori'on a
reconcilin% consensus, (yotar! $resu$$oses a $ersonal or social
hetero%eneity that can ne#er -e ne%otiate! or tal/e! out of
e2istence. 1or (yotar! the social other, for e2a"$le the racial,
class, %en!er, or $olitical other, is truly other. My #alues cannot -y
any "eans -e reconcile! ,ith his or her #alues, nor su-su"e! at
so"e hi%her le#el that ,ill enco"$ass the" -oth. Only a
!e"ocracy -ase! on !issensus an! on so"e i!ea of ra!ical
hetero%enity in !ifferent $ersons an! %rou$s ,ithin a sin%le $olity
coul! reco%ni'e an! $rotect this ra!ical otherness. Maurice
@lanchot an! Jean&(uc Nancy ha#e trie! to i"a%ine ,hat that
*un,or/e!+ co""unity "i%ht -e li/e. 4illia" Rea!in%s in his
-rilliant !ia%nosis of the uni#ersity an! Diane Ela" in an
a!"ira-le -oo/ on fe"inis" an! !econstruction, 6$$. D&CK6 Ms en
abe, ha#e e2$lore! in !ifferent areas ,hat a co""unity of
!issensus "i%ht -e li/e.
The *!ialo%ical+ in Mi/hail @a/htin5s thou%ht at first $erha$s
a$$ears to -e a confrontation throu%h con#ersation5s %i#e an! ta/e
of one $erson ,ith another. @ut the ter" na"es an incon%ruity
,ithin lan%ua%e that can ne#er -e s"oothe! out in so"e
"onolo%ical !iscourse. @a/htin %i#es this the na"e
*hetero%lossia.+ Just as @a/htin a$$ears to ha#e -een not .ust one
$erson, @a/htin, -ut at the sa"e ti"e also Loloshino# an!
Me!#e!e#, or $erha$s after all three !ifferent $ersons, so a !ialo%ic
!iscourse or a !iscourse of hetero%lossia has t,o or "ore *lo%oi,+
t,o or "ore irreconcila-le centers of e"ission an! control of
"eanin%. An e2traor!inary $assa%e in the essay *Discourse in (ife
an! Discourse in Art :Concernin% Sociolo%ical ?oetics;+ GMH
su%%ests that !ialo%ue is actually a tria!ic relation in ,hich the
"oti#atin% $ole is the "uteness an! inhu"an alienation of a
"aterial other.
?aul !e Man !oes not see" to ha#e "uch $atience ,ith $ortentous
ter"s li/e *the other+ or *others.+ His ra!ical conce$t of irony,
ho,e#er, $resu$$oses the encounter ,ith an otherness ,ithin
lan%ua%e that in#ol#es a $er"anent sus$ension of "eanin%. In !e
Man5s last essays this otherness is %i#en the stran%e uasi&Mar2ist
na"e *"ateriality.+ E2a"$les are $hrases in his ,or/ that are -y
no "eans easy to un!erstan! a-out *the "ateriality of lan%ua%e+
or *the "ateriality of history.+ *Materiality,+ in !e Man5s last
essays, !oes not na"e the soli! su-stance of $hysical "ateriality,
o$en to the senses, na"a-le an! "ani$ula-le at our ,ill. It na"es
a ra!ical alterity that is not $heno"enal, that is not the o-.ect of a
re$resenta-le intuition, that cannot -e confronte! or referentially,
literally na"e!. Other !is$lace! na"es for this !e Manian other
are *!eath+ or *the i"$ossi-ility of rea!in%.+ This "aterial other is
the un"eanin% an! i"$erce$ti-le -ase of all "eanin%,
so"ethin% 6$$. CK&CC6 not a $art of ,hat !e Man calls
*$heno"enality.+ It #itiates an! un!er"ines clear "eanin%, as the
contin%ency of $uns "a/es lan%ua%e esca$e the control of hi" or
her ,ho uses it. An ina!#ertent $un :an! lan%ua%e is full of
ina!#ertent $uns; "a/es the user say so"ethin% !ifferent fro"
,hat he or she inten!e! to say. This so"ethin% "ay ne#ertheless
ha#e $erfor"ati#e effects in the real ,orl!, since it is only the
effecti#e "ateriality of lan%ua%e, -eyon! $ers$icuous "eanin%,
that can -e a historical e#ent. De Man5s ra!ical re#ision of s$eech
act theory !etaches lan%ua%e, in $articular the "achine&li/e
o$erations of %ra""ar an! the a$oretic o$eration of tro$es, fro"
the control of the consciously ,illin% *I.+ (an%ua%e acts on its o,n
to $osit effecti#e $erfor"ati#es. These enter the hu"an ,orl! an!
"a/e history throu%h .ust those features of lan%ua%e that esca$e
control an! that !e Man calls the *"ateriality+ of lan%ua%e.
In all these !ifferent notions of otherness, a sin%le $ro-le"atic
"ay -e o-ser#e!. On the one han!, the other is seen as $art of a
!ialectical !ya! either allo,in% for an Au!hebung or $resu$$osin%
so"e *one+ of ,hich the t,o are !eri#ati#es. Such an alterity !oes
not lea! to a$orias. If the other is really another for" of the sa"e
"uch can -e sai!, !one, an! thou%ht. ?o,erful "achines of
thin/in%, sayin%, an! !oin% are not i"$e!e! in their ,or/in%.
There is $ossi-ility of un!erstan!in% an! reconcilation. The t,o
si!es can tal/, $erha$s reach a consensus. The conce$t of
"ulticulturalis", for e2a"$le, often, thou%h -y no "eans al,ays,
$resu$$oses a notion of culture that is co""on to all of the
cultures .u2ta$ose! in rain-o, -an!s. Ho,e#er stran%e the other
culture is, ho,e#er !ifferent the "inority culture ,ithin the
he%e"onic culture, it is still a culture. The conce$t of culture is a
uni#ersal "a/in% $ossi-le a hori'on of reconciliation or a
res$ectful co&e2istence that the ter"s $luralis" an!
*"ulticulturalis"+ na"e. This uni#ersalis" "eans I can assu"e I
a" a-le to un!erstan! the alien culture, to $ut "yself ,ithin it, to
ne%otiate ,ith it, in one ,ay or another to assi"ilate it, to a-sor- it
,ithin sa"eness. I !o not nee! to -e a nati#e A"erican in or!er to
un!erstan! an! teach Nati#e A"erican literature an! culture, .ust
as I !o not nee! to -e an En%lish "an or ,o"an to teach En%lish
literature. The entire institutionali'ation of 6$$. CC&CM6 the
hu"anities in the Unite! States :an! in "any other countries too;
!e$en!s on this assu"$tion. It is the -asic $resu$$osition, for
e2a"$le, of co"$arati#e literature as a !isci$line. It is not clear
that the ne, $ro%ra"s in cultural stu!ies or in *"ulticulturalis"+
consistently $ut that $resu$$osition in uestion.
On the other han!, the other "ay -e entirely other, that *tout
autre+ Derri!a na"es. If that is the case then no ne%otiation or
reconciliation is $ossi-le, only so"e s$eech act in#entin%,
inau%uratin%, or institutin% a fiction of the other. This alternati#e
$ossi-ility, it "ay -e, is intert,ine!, necessarily, ,ith the first. If
the other is the ,holly other, that !oes not "ean there is nothin%
there. The non&conce$t of the ,holly other is as far as can -e fro"
any nihilis". I call it a *non&conce$t+ -ecause a conce$t for"s $art
of a syste" of thou%ht o$en to lo%ical or !ialectical synthesis,
,hereas the *,holly others+ cannot -e assi"ilate! into any such
syste". The e#i!ence that there is so"ethin% there is the ,ay the
,holly others $ertur- e#ery s$eech&act&institute! fiction, for
e2a"$le the fiction of $ersonal, %rou$, or national i!entity. They
!i#i!e such unities ,ithin the"sel#es, "a/e the" nontotali'a-le.
A $arallel, thou%h it is only a fi%urati#e one, a .u2ta$osition of
inco""ensura-les, "ay -e !ra,n -et,een the ,holly others an!
those -lac/ holes astrono"ers hy$othesi'e. A -lac/ hole !oes not,
strictly s$ea/in% e2ist, if e2istence !e$en!s on -ein% o-ser#a-le
an! "easura-le. That is ,hy astrono"ers are so careful to re"in!
us that no -lac/ hole has e#er -een o-ser#e!. @lac/ holes re"ain
an un$ro#e! an! $erha$s un$ro#a-le hy$othesis that e2$lains
certain o-ser#e! celestial $heno"ena. Ne#ertheless, thou%h it
cannot -e #erifie! !irectly, a -lac/ hole "ay -e inferre! fro"
"atter5s #iolent $ertur-ation in its #icinity. (i/e -lac/ holes, the
,holly others ne#er "anifest the"sel#es !irectly, -ut %i#e e#i!ence
of the"sel#es in a #ariety of $ertur-ations that can -e re%istere!.
?erha$s "y o,n inner self, "y conscience, $resu"e! %roun! of
"y !ecisions an! co""it"ents, all the s$eech acts I enunciate,
"ay -e *encountere!+ :thou%h it is not really an encounter; as
,holly other. The ,holly other, on the other 6$$. CM&C<6 han!,
"i%ht -e an inco"$rehensi-le an! un/no,a-le otherness
%li"$se! ,hen I co"e face to face ,ith another $erson, $erha$s,
thou%h -y no "eans necessarily, a $erson of the *other se2+ or of a
!ifferent se2ual orientation. ?erha$s the ,holly other, on the
contrary, is a $o,er transcen!in% cultural an! $ersonal !ifference,
for e2a"$le the inscruta-ility of A$ollo an! the other !i#inities
in "edipus the #ing or the unassi"ila-le irrational in
Aristotle5s Poetics an! $hetoric. Such others co"e, as they say,
*fro" -eyon! the ,orl!.+ Death, finally :,hat coul! -e "ore final
than !eath0;, "ay -e ,restle! ,ith as so"ethin% ,holly other, as
in Henry Ja"es5s %he &ings o! the 'ove an! 4allace Ste#ens5s
*The O,l in the Sarco$ha%us.+ Death as other -y no "eans
necessarily $resu$$oses the e2istence of so"e transcen!ence, the
%o!s or No!, nor !oes it $resu"e so"e hea#en or hell, so"e other
$lace to ,hich ,e %o ,hen ,e are !ea!. Death lea#es those
uestions $ert"anently o$en, since !eath is that -ourne fro"
,hich no tra#eler returns. Death, "y !eath, the !eath that "ost
"atters to "e an! that I ,oul! "ost li/e to /no,, cannot -e
e2$erience!. Death is not an o-.ect of any *I+9s e2$erience.
?erha$s the ,holly other "ay -e a racial, national, class, or %en!er
other that is truly other an! "ay not -e co"$rehen!e! -y analo%y
,ith "y o,n /no,le!%e of "yself an! therefore ne%otiate! ,ith.
To!ay5s so&calle!*cultural stu!ies+stu!ies,+ li/e the !isci$line of
anthro$olo%y, often, thou%h certainly not al,ays, $resu$$ose that
the cultural other can -e un!erstoo! an! acco""o!ate! in so"e
coalition su-su"e! un!er a co""on conce$t of culture. Su$$ose
they ,ere ,ron% a-out that0 4hat ,oul! follo,0 Coul! there -e a
cultural stu!ies of the ,holly others0 The critic trea!s on
!an%erous %roun! here, since this assu"$tion a-out the ,holly
others "ay -e an i!eolo%ical $resu$$osition e2cusin% "uch
#iolence an! in.ustice. The hu"an instinct ,hen confronte! ,ith
an inassi"ila-le other is to o-literate it, as the Euro$eans !i! their
-est to o-literate the Nati#e A"ericans. Coul! there -e a cultural
stu!ies of the ,holly others that ,oul! a#oi! this0 This ,oul!
%enerate a *hu"anistic !iscourse+ !ifferent fro" any /in! that
$resu$$oses trans$arency an! reconciliation as a hori'on or %oal.
6$$. C<&CO6
I shall no, -riefly consi!er the i"$lications of this non&conce$t of
the ,holly others for one s$ecific for" of hu"anistic !iscourse>
literature an! aca!e"ic lan%ua%e a-out literature in the Unite!
States. I shall thin/ es$ecially of De$art"ents of En%lish in the
Unite! States. This is of course only one s"all se%"ent of
hu"anistic !iscourse, e#en in the Unite! States. I shall say nothin%
a-out .ournalistic !iscourse a-out the hu"anities or ,hat electe!
$oliticians or foun!ation officials say a-out the hu"anities. There
are s$aces -et,een an! ,ithin each of these for"s, thou%h they
also o#erla$. Much .ournalistic !iscourse a-out the hu"anities, for
e2a"$le, is ,ritten -y $eo$le ,ho hol! aca!e"ic $ositions. Since I
shall $ut in uestion the synec!ochic relationshi$ that "i%ht allo,
"e to assert that aca!e"ic hu"anistic !iscourse in the Unite!
States can stan! for hu"anistic !iscourse %enerally in the Unite!
States or a-roa!, I cannot clai" to -e s$ea/in% of "ore than one
se%"ent of hu"anistic !iscourse.
4hat is the $resent state of aca!e"ic hu"anities !iscourse0 A
*crisis in re$resentation,+ as @roo/ Tho"as calls it, e2ists in our
,ritin%, teachin%, an! curricular !esi%n in !e$art"ents of the
national literatures an! in co"$arati#e literature. In #arious ,ays
"ost teachers in A"erican colle%es an! uni#ersities use! to -elie#e
in the #ali!ity of a $art for ,hole or synec!ochal relationshi$ in
literary stu!y. A %oo! literary ,or/ ,as $resu"e! to -e an or%anic
,hole, so the stu!y of a $art coul! -e a "eans of un!erstan!in% or
teachin% the ,hole. Teachers coul! use ,ith a clear conscience the
techniue of !etaile! stu!y of an a-stract so -rilliantly e2$loite!,
for e2a"$le, in Eric Auer-ach5s Miesis. The ,hole ,or/, carefully
chosen an! e2$licate! on the assu"$tion that each $art of it
"irrore! the ,hole, coul! then -e use! as a ,ay of un!erstan!in%
,hat ,as in one ,ay or another a ho"o%eneous circu"a"-ient
culture. One citation fro" Lir%inia 4oolf5s %o the (ighthouse
coul! re$resent, for Auer-ach, the ,hole "o!ernist $ractice of
realistic re$resentation. It ,as $ossi-le to clai", ,ithout seein% the
clai" as $ro-le"atic, that stu!y of Moby 'ick ,oul! %i#e rea!ers a
full un!erstan!in% of "i!&nineteenth&century A"erican culture. Of
course such clai"s ,ere not al,ays "a!e uite so -latantly, -ut
so"e #ersion of such an assu"$tion o$erate! ,i!ely as an
unuestione! i!eolo&6$$. CO&C76 %e"e :-ut an i!eolo%ical ele"ent
is -y !efinition unuestione!;. The i!eolo%e"e "ay ha#e -een all
the "ore $o,erful for -ein% an uns$o/en assu"$tion %ui!in% the
choice of the canon an! the !e#isin% of curricula.
1e, $eo$le ha#e any lon%er an unsha/en confi!ence in this
$ara!i%", e#en those ,ho "ost stri!ently assert it. 4e reco%ni'e,
for e2a"$le, that the Unite! States is a "ulticultural an!
"ultilin%ual nation. A %i#en ,or/ or canon re$resents only one
$art of a co"$le2 non&unifia-le ,hole. To choose to teach Moby
'ick rather than )ncle %os *abin or e#en to choose to teach
-oth of the" to%ether is not the result of a reco%nition that they are
in so"e ,ay o-.ecti#ely re$resentati#e. It is the result of a
motivated and unjustifiable choice. Nor can there any lon%er
-e a recourse to so"e stan!ar! of intrinsic su$eriority allo,in% us
to say that Moby 'ick is a -etter ,or/ than )ncle %os *abin,
since that stan!ar! too is the result of i!eolo%ical -ias. This loss of
confi!ence in the $ossi-ility of .ustifyin% a sylla-us on the -asis of
its o-.ecti#ely #erifia-le re$resentati#e status is al"ost as "uch of
a !isaster for those traine! in the ol! ,ays of teachin% literature as
,oul! -e a loss of confi!ence in the $o,er of our electe!
re$resentati#es to stan! for us in a re$resentati#e !e"ocracy.
The crisis in representation in the hu"anities lea!s to
enor"ous problems in esta-lishin% curricula, in practical
work in teachin% an! ,ritin% a-out literature, in making
decisions a-out a$$oint"ents an! $ro%ra"s. One reason, for
e2a"$le, that so "uch ti"e is s$ent in theoretical s$eculation
these !ays is that ,e ha#e no consensus a-out .ust ho, ,e ou%ht to
$rocee!. E#eryone feels he or she has to reinvent the whole
institution of teaching literature in the uni#ersity fro" the
%roun! :or lac/ of %roun!; u$. @ernar! @er%on'i has ,ritten a
$ole"ical -oo/ a-out this chan%e as it effects the !isci$line of
En%lish literature. The title of his -oo/ tells ,hat he feels a-out
these chan%es> +,ploding +nglish.
This crisis in re$resentation for literature !e$art"ents
acco"$anies a lar%er crisis of re$resentation for the uni#ersity as a
,hole, in $articular for the hu"anities as an ele"ent in a ne, 6$$.
C7&C86 /in! of uni#ersity in a !ifferent ,orl! of %lo-al econo"y
an! %lo-al co""unication. The ol! A"erican $ara!i%" for the
research uni#ersity ,as -orro,e! fro" the Hu"-ol!tian "o!el of
the Uni#ersity of @erlin. This ,as ,i!ely influential in the Unite!
States, for e2a"$le, in the foun!in% of The Johns Ho$/ins
Uni#ersity in CA=8. The $rofessionali'ation of the !isci$lines of
En%lish an! other "o!ern Euro$ean literatures -e%an at Ho$/ins
,ith the esta-lishin% of the Mo!ern (an%ua%e Association in CAA<.
?artly un!er the influence of Matthe, Arnol!, the stu!y of one
national literature, na"ely En%lish literature, re$lace! in En%lan!
an! A"erica the role %i#en to $hiloso$hy in the ori%inal
Hu"-ol!tian uni#ersity. This ori%inal role for $hiloso$hy is
enshrine! still in the fact that ,e are all !octors of $hiloso$hy,
,hate#er our !isci$line. The $resu"$tion ,as that the uni#ersity5s
function ,as to ser#e a sin%le unifie! nation-state -y $reser#in%
an! $assin% on its #alues an! i!eals. En%lish De$art"ents $laye! a
central role in fulfillin% that function.
The conce$t of the nation&state on ,hich such a !efinition of the
En%lish De$art"ent5s "ission ,as -ase! has ero!e! in recent
years. It has -een re$lace! -oth -y an internationaliation or
globaliation of universit! research an! -y a reco%nition, in
the Unite! States, that our nation is "ulticultural, hetero%eneous,
!i#erse. 1or "any $eo$le the ol! "ission of the uni#ersity no
lon%er has $ersuasi#e force. 4e ha#e not yet, ho,e#er, in#ente! a
ne, $ara!i%" for the nature an! function of the uni#ersity. The
loss of this s$ecial role for the stu!y of En%lish literature $uts
En%lish !e$art"ents es$ecially un!er stress in the ne, $ost&
national, $ost&"o!ern uni#ersity. Those of us ,ho are ?rofessors
of En%lish ha#e -een !e$ri#e! of our traditional role as
preservers and transmitters of the unified values of a
homogeneous nation-state. There ,as al,ays so"ethin% of an
ano"aly in -asin% the #alues of the Unite! States on the stu!y of
En%lish literature, that is, on the stu!y of the literature of a forei%n
country ,here they ha$$en to s$ea/ a #ersion of our o,n lan%ua%e.
It ta/es only a "o"ent5s thou%ht to reali'e ho, !ifferent it is for a
@ritish citi'en, of ,hate#er class, %en!er, or race, to rea!
Sha/es$eare, Milton, or Dic/ens, fro" ,hat it is for an A"erican
to rea! the". They !o not -elon% to us or e2$ress our national
#alues or e#en the #alues of our he%e"onic class in the sa"e 6$$.
C8&C=6 ,ays. Ne#ertheless, En%lish literature ,as still the -asis of a
literary e!ucation in the Unite! States ,hen I %ot "y
un!er%ra!uate an! %ra!uate !e%rees in En%lish literature not all
that "any !eca!es a%o. It is still to a consi!era-le !e%ree the case,
for e2a"$le at the Uni#ersity of California at Ir#ine, ,here there
are -et,een si2 an! se#en hun!re! En%lish "a.ors. My %ra!uate
En%lish ualifyin% e2a"ination sto$$e! ,ith Tho"as Har!y an!
inclu!e! no A"erican literature at all, "uch less any theory. @ut
re$lace"ent of En%lish literature ,ith the stu!y of an A"erican
literature seen as the e2$ression of an inte%rate! set of #alues to
,hich all %oo! citi'ens shoul! a!here is no lon%er for "ost $eo$le
a #ali! alternati#e to stu!yin% e2clusi#ely En%lish literature.
4hat alternati#e ,oul! -e -est0 4illia" Rea!in%s of the
Uni#ersity of Montr)al has !one -rilliant ,or/ in thin/in% throu%h
the $ro-le"s of ,hat he calls the *$ost"o!ern uni#ersity.+ A "a.or
theoretical an! $ractical challen%e confronts !e$art"ents of
En%lish no, to re!efine their role in the ne, /in! of uni#ersity an!
the ne, /in! of non&unifie! national culture. If ,e !o not fin! this
ne, role ,e shall en! u$ ser#in% a $urely ancillary function as
teachers of co""unication s/ills for a $re!o"inantly technolo%ical
uni#ersity.
I a%ree not only ,ith Rea!in%s, -ut also ,ith Derri!a, (yotar!,
Diane Ela", Neral! Nraff, an! "any others ,ho ha#e in !ifferent
,ays calle! for the creation of a universit! of dissensus, that is,
one in ,hich the i"$ossi-ility of reconcilin% !ifferences -y
!ialo%ue or -y increase! /no,le!%e ,oul! -e o$enly reco%ni'e!
an! institutionali'e!. A ne,ly concei#e! En%lish !e$art"ent "i%ht
ha#e an i"$ortant role in such a uni#ersity, -ut not as the
$ro"ul%ator of a sin%le canon or a sin%le national i!eolo%y.
Tho"as Jefferson sai! the Unite! States ou%ht to ha#e another
re#olution e#ery t,enty years. One "i%ht i"a%ine a uni#ersity that
re"ains in a state of $er"anent re#olution, that is, one in ,hich
teachin% an! research ,oul! -e !efine! not as the $reser#ation
an! au%"entation of ,hat is alrea!y /no,n -ut as the in#ention
an! !isco#ery of the ne,, in res$onse to a !e"an! "a!e on us -y
the other of ,hat ,e alrea!y ha#e. Thin/in% out ,hat that "i%ht
"ean in 6$$. C=&CA6 $ractical ter"s for teachin%, research, an!
curriculu" $lannin% is a "a.or tas/ for hu"anists to!ay.
. Hu"anistic Discourse
@ehler > Hu"anistic !iscourses $ro-a-ly function -est in
their cultural conte2t ,hen they inter#ene 3 in the sense s$ecifie! in
the first uestion of the last "e"oran!u" 3 e#en critically an!
confrontationally, -y challen%in% an entire set of esta-lishe! cultural
ha-its, #alues, -eliefs, an! nor"s.
In China > ,hat cannot -e a#oi!e! in the !iscussion of the
!iscourse of Chinese hu"anis" is the e2tre"ely a"-i%uous
relationshi$ of hu"anis"6Enli%hten"ent6"o!ernity.
Miller> *Hu"anistic !iscourse+ can -e ta/en si"$ly to !esi%nate
the lan%ua%es of the hu"anities as o$$ose! to those of the social sciences or
the natural sciences, ne#ertheless the ,or! *hu"anistic+ i"$lies that all "en
an! ,o"en of all nations at all ti"es share a co""on essence.