Cousins Post 9: The Place of National Literatures in a Posthuman Multi-versity

Braidotti does a nice job of weaving various interconnected strands of posthuman effects into a cohesive whole…my post will do no such thing. This week’s reading takes on so many of the most urgent, relevant pieces of discourse re: the humanities and now my head is a buzzin!

I’ll work my way backwards – Braidotti’s exploration of a “Posthuman Humanities” in Chapter 4 includes a shifting of the humanities crisis into a posthuman opportunity that feels hyper-relevant to my own department’s situation. After losing the PhD track, conversations between my peers generally had two themes – Comp lit is dead, and what do we do now? While most of us aren’t going on to get doctorate degrees, those who are (or are considering) are steering far away from national literature departments. Instead, people are looking at degrees in American Culture studies, Media studies, degree names that include terms like “Inter”, “Multi” and maybe the word “and”. Most of us came to Comparative Literature because we wanted an interdisciplinary approach to literature that seemed less acceptable in national literature departments (whether or not this is still true of English, I’m not sure, and I’m sure it depends on the institution). Ideas about a new type of PhD program that allowed for interdisciplinarity across multiple mediums (visual art, literature, film, etc.) were discussed—the end of complit sparked re-visions of what a Humanities department or a literature department can look like. In reality, though, any changes or reimaginings of departments will take place long after my class has moved on in or out of academia. It was interesting to read Braidotti’s concept of a multiversity after having experienced the disheartening notion that multi-national / multi-perspective literature studies weren’t really valued. This isn’t to say at all that a comparative literature program is in line with Braidotti’s views on a posthuman humanities – but it does make me wonder what the place of departmental structuring around national literatures is in a multiversity. Are there aspects of imperial / Eurocentric / androcentric ideologies built into the national literature system? I think the answer has to be yes, and Braidotti’s shifting towards a posthuman humanities might point to ways to subvert those build-in marginalizing tendencies.

Braidotti’s articulation of the asymmetrical ideologies hidden within the humanist ideal exposes the Eurocentrism at work within our university system as well, as “a structural element of our cultural practice, which is also embedded in both theory and institutional and pedagogical practices” (15). Eurocentrism certainly seems like a building block for the departmental system of national literatures; even within those national literatures studies of the literature of marginalized nations or marginalized peoples within that nation are often “Othered” in a hierarchy that places the colonizing nation in the default position (French Lit vs. Francophone African or Caribbean literature, the classic American canon vs. literature of Diaspora or African-American literature, etc.) Even in this paragraph I just relegated very diverse areas of study into a single parenthetical based entirely on otherness. Ah!

Braidotti, however, seems optimistic about the power of interdisciplinary “studies” and their ability to act as counter-discourses to the problematic universal narrative of humanism within the university: “Over the last thirty years, new critical epistemologies have offered alternative definitions of the ‘human’ by inventing interdisciplinary areas which call themselves ‘studies’, like: gender, feminism, ethnicity, cultural studies, post-colonial, media and new media and Human rights studies (Bart et al., 2003)” (144). Citing James Chandler, Braidotti mentions the emergence of a ‘critical disciplinarity’ that challenges the “traditional organization of the university in departmental structures” (144). Interdisciplinarity seems essential to the subversive power of these “studies”, and I wonder to what extent a posthuman humanities should abandon the national literature model…I wouldn’t advocate a transcendence of location, of course, but a recognition of the multiplicity of different locations from which to speak / study literature. A relational subjectivity, I think, demands a relational (though not completely relativist) approach to the study of literature as well. As Braidotti states, “Posthuman subjectivity reshapes the identity of humanistic practices, by stressing heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality, instead of autonomy and self-referential disciplinary purity” (145). I’m not entirely sure that disciplinary purity exists or can exist anymore, especially within English departments…and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

It does make me wonder, though, why we still use national literatures as headings for work that seems to exceed those boundaries. Braidotti says that “We need an active effort to reinvent the academic field of the Humanities in a new global context and to develop an ethical framework worthy of our posthuman times. Affirmation, not nostalgia, is the road to pursue: not the idealization of philosophical meta-discourse, but the more pragmatic task of self-transformation through humble experimentation (150). Is there nostalgia in play within structuring based on national literatures? If so, where does it come from? Is it tied at all to nationalism? Is there a benefit to organizing based off of national literatures? Do we lose something if we stop calling it “English Lit” or “Spanish Lit” or “German Lit”? I suppose one could argue that nationalism can serve as a means by which marginalized populations can re-assert their own power…but in general, departments organized around marginalized populations don’t seem to be the norm, at least within the study of literature.

If humanism in its most limiting, androcentric and Eurocentric forms is built into the way we organize the humanities, is the solution then to reform the system or scrap it altogether? Do we even need to take action to destabilize that system (if we want to), or are the trends of new technologies and the “crisis” in humanities already taking care of that? Is the way forward, as Braidotti says, an affirmative one? If so, what sort of actions should be taken?

Chandler, in his 2004 article “Critical Disciplinarity” from Critical Inquiry, cited earlier by Braidotti, says:

We need to rearticulate the disciplinary system after three decades of “add on” fields and programs. We need to do this not in order to cut costs or to rebind ourselves to a new regime of disciplinarity but, at least in part, to create new possibilities for interdisciplinary connection and exploration. The structure of the research university needs serious rethinking. Because the professionalized and marketdriven practices of the national disciplines are so deeply entrenched, this effort must be largescale and it will not be easy…Chandler 359

I went searching for examples of this restructuring, or more tangible examples of what Braidotti’s multiversity would look like. In an interview with a “cross-media” project called nY, Braidotti expanded on the reshaping of universities, calling for a meta-disciplinarity that calls the humanities into question:

For me this professionalization exercise also implies that we start teaching the humanities instead of the disciplines. That meta-disciplinary move will take some time since the attachment to the disciplines is enormous but the centers for the humanities that are popping up right now are interesting exercises. Leiden is opening one, the Amsterdam University is opening one. Those centers pose the question “what are the humanities?” (qtd. in Posman 1).

At the same time that Braidotti calls for this meta-disciplinarity, she recognizes the difficulty some may feel in letting go of the disciplinary model:

For somebody like me, who has abandoned her discipline a long time ago, it’s not a big issue, but for people who have been raised in their discipline it’s a very painful exercise. It’s almost like leaving home. (qtd. in Posman 1).

I think I feel similarly to Braidotti – having already, in a way, been somewhat displaced departmentally and having already come from a position wherein my technical “discipline” didn’t have a single home, I have few qualms about letting go of traditional structures – but I recognize that others might not feel the same. One could argue, ironically, that lack of “departmental purity” is what made it easier for the Comp. Lit PhD to fall through infrastructural cracks and get boot, so I can also see dangers in shifting away from classic models.

One strategy that Braidotti brings up in the interview is the idea of “centers for the humanities”, which I think ties into our discussions about humanities labs and the kinds of possibilities for collaborative, interdisciplinary work that those labs open up. “Centers” like the ones Braidotti mentions can cut across disciplinary and departmental boundaries, creating opportunities for, I think, the kind of posthuman humanities projects that Braidotti envisions.

The University of Amsterdam that Braidotti mentions houses the OSL or The Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies, a “national network for literary theory, comparative literature, Dutch literature, and the literatures of the major modern languages in the Netherlands” (“About OSL”). Though based at the University of Amsterdam, the “school” is open to participants from other universities, including those abroad. Their mission statement recognizes, like Braidotti, the potential of new forms of “studies” to reinvigoriate the study of literature:

The rise of network theories and digital humanities, new materialism and affect studies, new sociologies of (world) literature and various forms of cognitivist and neuro-criticism currently reinvigorates and transforms the study of literature in ways that ask for curious participation and critical reflection. At the same time, new educational and funding policies, questions concerning the role of the humanities in society at large and the alleged disappearance of ‘art’ and ‘culture’ as (semi)autonomous spheres of critique and emancipation change the socio-political contexts in which literary scholars work and define their research interests and projects. OSL strives to be the intellectual and academic forum for the discussion, advancement and reflection of the state(s) of the art of literary studies…(“About OSL”).

The center seems to foster interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, cross-university projects that are aimed at rethinking the humanities. Odlie Bodde’s media studies project “Studies on torture: the politics and aesthetics of brutality in war-on-terror films” (Studies on torture), for example, is part of the NWO-funded interdisciplinary programme What can the humanities contribute to our practical self-understanding? that takes place at Utrecht University, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Leiden University, while Anouk Zuurmond looks at “Transnational Literary Projects: Strategies and Effects in the Debate on a European Identity” (Zuurmond). Whether these types of projects align with Braidotti’s zoe-centered posthumanism, I’m not sure…but the structure in place certainly seems to open up space for thinking posthuman subjectivities and the way that they are reshaping the humanities. Can this type of work happen within traditional disciplinary structures as well, or are they too inundated with humanist ideology?

Also, I thought I was done, but this nY “cross-media” project from which I got the Braidotti interview is very cool and seems to align with Braidotti’s affirmative, generative ideas about creating alternatives:

nY came into being in 2009 as a result of the fusion of two Flemish literary journals—yang (founded in 1963) and freespace Nieuwzuid (founded in 1999). This fusion took place because the arrival of the Internet has definitively changed the way literary journals function. nY is no longer a literary-cultural journal, as we have known them for almost two centuries now, but a cross-media project, the core of which is the intersection of a paper journal and this website…

…Consequently, the new that is relevant to nY is that which does not concern itself with the consensus. For that reason, the nY project is often a critical one. But it also has a powerful, creative aspect—it generates alternatives that were never before considered possible. The categorical imperative to which nY adheres is this: show them that it can be done differently! This imperative is inherent in every creative act, and the heeding of this imperative calls up the same feelings—tension, uneasiness and sometimes even fear, but also, most of all, the pleasure of adventure and freedom regained.

In line with this, nY resolves to be a discursive machine, in other words a machine which brings unconventional concepts and ideas into circulation. At the root of this practice is the conviction that reality (the social, the historical) is a set of constructions founded in influential discourses. Engaging in these discourse results in the reinvention of our reality. And that, in addition to being a critical pursuit, is also an extremely pleasurable one.
(About nY)

Affirmative, cross-platform – a “discursive machine”!


2 thoughts on “Cousins Post 9: The Place of National Literatures in a Posthuman Multi-versity

  1. Erin, thanks for this post! Rarely do I see my own fears so plainly reiterated:

    “I have few qualms about letting go of traditional structures – but I recognize that others might not feel the same. One could argue, ironically, that lack of “departmental purity” is what made it easier for the Comp. Lit PhD to fall through infrastructural cracks and get boot, so I can also see dangers in shifting away from classic models.”

    Unfortunately, I have ALL of the qualms when it comes to leaving traditional infrastructure behind. Mitch’s comment in class is still ringing in my ears: Braidotti’s “multi-versity” seems like a utopic abstract, not a practical reality. I won’t deny the sheer appeal of Braidotti’s call-to-action, but even if this “humanities” boat is sinking, it’s still keeping me out of the water for a few more breaths. (Is that survival or complicity?)


  2. AMPierquet says:

    Hi Erin. I found your post on how university restructuring is endangering the place of national literatures in humanities disciplines to be particularly compelling, as I have my own history with interdisciplinary research, comparative literature and finding myself on the periphery of what is “acceptable” to the discipline of literary studies. As such, your discussion of “studies” topics replacing an emphasis on “national literatures” as universities reorganize and strive to be more “interdisciplinary,” “research-oriented” and “relevant” — or as you so poignantly borrow the phrase from Braidotti, become “multiversities” — struck a chord.

    Is it sufficient to be interdisciplinary? As your description of the “death” of the comp. lit. doctoral program would attest, perhaps not. As graduate students, we inhabit a precarious space within academia — one that struggles between the valences of interesting and innovative, and “hireable.” This transient and precarious condition necessarily makes the decision to enter any graduate program inherently political, as departments will be producing certain kinds of degree-holders to fulfill specific types of jobs. As of yet, departments are still hiring candidates who fit within the “national literature” or major “studies” schema. In that sense, should graduates with an interdisciplinary focus be looking for a different kind of department? What would that department look like?

    In your engagement with Braidotti’s discussion of the “posthuman multi-versity,” you outline a “posthumanities” articulation of humanities disciplines wherein the subject is rearticulated “by inventing interdisciplinary areas which call themselves ‘studies’” (Braidotti 144). These studies, which are subversive because they employ “critical disciplinarity,” form the basis of a multiversity by allowing academics from different disciplinary backgrounds and approaches to enter into conversation around shared subjects and objects. Not necessarily situated outside disciplinary structures, established “studies” have been successfully integrated into departmental structures, such as environmental humanities or book history studies. Perhaps then, the issue with our current humanities disciplines might not be an emphasis on national literatures or areas of study, but rather with a particular genealogies of critical thought that limit how certain objects can be approached within the “university” framework.

    On the other hand, are these new humanities centres rearticulating this framework or reestablishing the “most limiting, androcentric and Eurocentric forms”? As an addition to your discussion of burgeoning “humanities” programs, I would add my own experience of working with humanities students this semester in a course focused on “methods” in humanities research. Through regular conversations with individuals of academic backgrounds so different from my own, I found that our treatment of critics discussing the “humanities,” “post-humanities” and cultural theory, had less to do with articulating the position of the subject in relation to technical objects and more to do with articulating our thinking and criticism around our objects of study. In response to your hesitance to abandon the “national model” altogether, I would argue that an active study of objects would naturally form connections to existing national literatures and established areas of study. In this model, studies of genre and form in literature would side-step certain tendencies to develop in isolation within the traditional model. In addition, by favouring object-based approaches to methodology, the divide between digital humanists and analog humanists might even seem not so ingrained in our disciplinary culture.

    Having written 3 essays on interdisciplinary approaches to the humanities this semester, I would definitely agree with your concern about the rearticulation of the humanities, one being driven by a new mandate for relevancy in this “modern day and age.” Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the possibilities of “post-human” humanities disciplines with us.


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