The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life

Synopsis

This book tests the proposition that the humanities can, and at their best do, represent a commitment to ethical reading. And that this commitment, and the training and discipline of close reading that underlie it, represent something that the humanities need to bring to other fields: to professional training and to public life.

What leverage does reading, of the attentive sort practiced in the interpretive humanities, give you on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? The question was posed for many in the humanities by the "Torture Memos" released by the Justice Department a few years ago, presenting arguments that justified the
use of torture by the U.S. government with the most twisted, ingenious, perverse, and unethical interpretation of legal texts. No one trained in the rigorous analysis of poetry could possibly engage in such bad-faith interpretation without professional conscience intervening to say: This is not possible.

Teaching the humanities appears to many to be an increasingly disempowered profession--and status--within American culture. Yet training in the ability to read critically the messages with which society, politics, and culture bombard us may be more necessary than ever in a world in which the manipulation of minds and hearts
is more and more what running the world is all about.

This volume brings together a group of distinguished scholars and intellectuals to debate the public role and importance of the humanities. Their exchange suggests that Shelley was not wrong to insist that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind: Cultural change carries everything in its wake. The attentive interpretive reading practiced in the humanities ought to be an export commodity to other fields and to take its place in the public sphere.in the public sphere.

Excerpt

Peter Brooks

Over the past few years, I have taught a seminar for students and faculty under the title “The Ethics of Reading and the Cultures of Professionalism.” the seminar asked these questions: What leverage does reading of the attentive sort practiced in the humanities give one on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? Should such an ethics of reading inhabit professional training and the public sphere as well? These questions were posed for me with brutal force after reading the “Torture Memos” released by the U.S. Department of Justice, in the years following their composition in 2002. These documents presented arguments that justified the use of torture by the most twisted, ingenious, perverse, and unethical interpretation of legal texts. Many others have taken apart these memoranda from the Office of Legal Counsel—supposed to provide the highest standard of legal analysis—so I will not detail here how they interpret the meaning and usage of words and phrases in ways that are arbitrary and authoritarian rather than probative. No one trained in the rigorous analysis of poetry, I said to myself, could possibly engage in such bad-faith interpretation without professional conscience intervening to say: this is not right. That was the position that I tried to stake out in . . .

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