“If culture is to matter we must pay attention to its matter”, Paulo de Medeiros

Paulo de Medeiros foto

“Splinters, Freedoms, Matter”é o título do ‘statement’ de Paulo de Medeiros apresentado no encontro ‘Matters of Culture’, no dia 9 de Fevereiro de 2016.  Com a publicação deste texto, encerramos a publicação neste blogue de todas as participações, que pode consultar através da categoria que designa o evento.

To speak of a crisis in the Humanities is not merely a cliché. It is also at one and the same time a recognition of the conflictual and conflicting nature of the Humanities and of human societies, and an easy opening to just ignore the real threats directed at the very core of the Humanities and what might be understood as critical thought. The stakes are high; too high for any one of us to simply resign ourselves and accept the way the world is turning because we might feel too small or insignificant or removed from the sites of power. Because if we do, if we simply capitulate, lulled by a false sense of complacency, inevitability and our own relatively privileged positions we shall have betrayed the trust society has placed on us as both bearers of tradition and questioning critics.. There is a duty, a duty common to any citizen, but very especially so, also an intellectual duty, to question, expose and resist the insidious and pervasive ways in which basic advancements in social justice, including the right to a free and public education, are being systematically threatened and eroded. To that effect Adorno’s warning at the opening of the Minima Moralia has not only not lost any of its incisive power, but, unfortunately, has never been more actual and urgent: “Der Blick aufs Leben ist übergegangen in die Ideologie, die darüber betrügt, daß es keines mehr gibt” (“Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer,” Jephcott, 1974). I would thus like to propose adopting an Adornian “splintered” vision (“The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass”) towards the question of the Humanities for two reasons: for one, the very concept of the Humanities as it might have been originally conceived has been necessarily broken. It shattered as the flaws and blind spots of Enlightenment  discourse, that still allowed for it to remain in so many instances an instrument for domination and the preservation of privilege, have been exposed. And, secondly, the potentially emancipatory premises of that same discourse have become increasingly targeted by reactionary forces ruthlessly bent of turning back the process of democratization and social justice that characterized, at one point, the very notion of western societies and for which the Humanities were both a guarantee and a motor for progress.

The notion of progress itself has also already been problematized, if not completely discarded, and I am not in any way advocating a return to a belief in a teleological understanding of human society. However, it is crucial to distinguish a progressive critique of progress and a reactionary sleigh of hand through which the rightful gains in democratic rule and social rights would be destroyed. At this point it is useful to recall how Henry Giroux has set the question before us when he affirmed: “The crisis of class is not restricted to an economic crisis. Workers are not merely exploited; they are also under assault through forms of neo-liberal intellectual violence that diminish their sense of agency and depoliticize the spaces in which they may produce the language and social relations necessary to resist the ravages of economic Darwinism” (2013). As our societies – at least in the West – become increasingly dominated by fear and through the continuous implementation of all of the mechanisms set up in order to increase that fear while pretending to assuage or control it, this is a point that can easily be forgotten. Yet, together with questions of race and gender, basic issues of inequality in our societies risk being sidelined, dismissed and even denied, with an obvious consequence: the sliding into an amorphous and uncritical mass in which workers receive as much training as considered necessary to be productive and any form of difference will not be tolerated. The extent to which the crisis of the Humanities has come to occupy a great many intellectuals can be glimpsed by the establishment at Princeton of a taskforce charged with inquiring into the “Future of the Humanities”. In its October 2015 report we can read right from the start how the humanities and with it the study of culture in all of its forms is inextricably tied up with financial issues: “Universities have become increasingly identified in the public mind with mere vocational training, but a supple education in the arts and humanities is a good investment in the modern environment, however paradoxical that may seem to anxious parents and students. (…) Numerous studies show that, on the basis of such a preparation, it is far from being financial or career suicide to major in a Humanities subject, especially if we look at the earnings of majors…” (http://www.princeton.edu/strategicplan/files/Humanities-Task-Force-report-2015.pdf). Without wanting to give the impression that the University or the Humanities can (or ever could) disassociate themselves from the world – the opposite will be my contention precisely – I still find it deeply disturbing when such a distinguished body of colleagues clearly sees no issue with making success in and of the Humanities dependent on one sole factor, the economic one. But none of this is really new of course. As Alain Badiou has made more than clear, reflecting on the causes for the attacks of 13th November in Paris, justice should always strive to enlarge public space but for the last thirty years we have observed an ever increasing and suffocating privatization. So culture also tends more an more to become either a private affair – private property that offers the prospect of a generous rate of return on the initial investment – or a mass commodity serving more often than not to generate controlled and marketable desires in a vicious circle that creates the illusion of freedom and choice while reinforcing absolute forms of control that deny any form of agency to the individual, especially as that too becomes a suspect category.

Rather than discussing the “future” of the Humanities – how many times does an appeal to the “new” hide an attempt to keep things as they are and preserve the transmission of power along established lines as Giuseppe di Lampedusa so powerfully showed in The Leopard? Instead, what I find urgent is a reconsideration of the materiality of culture. Without wanting to merely hark back to discussions on materialism and dialectics, but also without totally reifying the subject and transform it into “new materialisms” that tend to ignore the difficult and even dehumanizing material conditions, which a massive amount of people still must endure. There is a need to pay close attention to those very simple issues that are at the root of so many masterpieces and that go on affecting our lives in profound ways. While rejecting any form of nostalgia I think that only in relating the present to the past – our contemporary understanding of the past that is – can we make sense of our predicaments and imagine solutions for the ills that afflict us and that, as Badiou stressed in the title of his recent lecture, come from long ago. If our present world puts forward ever changing and complex processes of cultural relations our task is to analyse them, without falling in to the trap and temptation of believing that critique amounts to social change, but in the firm conviction that theory and praxis go together and mutually inform each other. Ultimately, as much as we might worry about the financial success of future generations, we owe them as much, if not more, to remain intellectually honest. If culture is to matter we must pay attention to its matter

Paulo de Medeiros, February 2016

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