With Friends Like These
From my underground vantage, it seems suspiciously neat that the “ethical turn” sweeps the humanities just as the humanities are inducted into a losing battle to justify their existence. We’ve come a long way from when I got on the train, and the old canon-war arguments about the construction of syllabi seem positively Arcadian against arguments about who’s got the nickel to photocopy the syllabus sheet. Regular readers of academic insider rags (perhaps of the trade press generally) will recognize the Defense of the Humanities as an upstart genre of polemic, pitched to a wider audience than the ethical-crit tomes but tripping on the same fallacies, since it’s been given the same losing case to plead: show, against all evidence, that encounters with the creative imagination will make us better. What could be worse, except the argument’s facile flipside making a virtue of uselessness: Oscar Wilde with none of the charm, tickled a complacent pink over his gifts from the gods?
On aesthetics, Kant and Bourdieu have already divided the world between them, but I do have the temerity to think that “the generosity of ‘Take what I make... or not.’” is exactly right, and that artworks are gifts. I would even follow the Levinas-Derrida line far enough to admit that gifts are puzzling, though this isn’t to say that they come out of the ether, or that they’re especially virtuous. Gifts can be given cynically, to seduce, to propitiate kings or gods, to salve bad consciences; they can be in horrid taste, causing the recipient great embarrassment (must I swallow what’s been prepared for me?); they can be rejected, causing hurt feelings all around; opportunities abound for pettiness, cattiness, showoffery, spite. What binds these cases to each other, and to happier ones, is only that they occur outside economieswhich is to say, in the language of rational choice theory, that they’re undertaken for no good reason. (That certain artists and scholars have done very well in certain economies is an epiphenomenon that I’m delighted to ignore.) The absence of rational self-interest receives lofty names in the philosophical tradition: Freiheit of course, and the more plausibly technical Autonomie. But one would expect a gift to make sense only in social contexts with established etiquettes of gift-giving: love poetry, court poetry, coteries. Outside these warm zones, one ends up with gifts given only to oneself (the Billy Budd manuscript, left in a tin breadbox) or with Romantic/modernist bluster about giving gifts to the world, which is probably the same thing. The uncreated conscience of the race is a more comfortable thought than the created conscience; the unacknowledged legislators of the world, if ever acknowledged, would make the U.S. Congress look like Solon.
I don’t have the longevity to say whether universities, or anyone else, used to take gift-giving more seriously than they do now. I do know that thousands in my generation are willing and excellently prepared to give, and that for lack of an etiquette, they will be thrown back on an economy. That is to say: for lack of life’s needs they will fail. The value of these lost gifts, as with any gift, is a matter that etiquette forbids prying into. If the gift is congenial, it is good to receive, and if the soul is receptive, it can be good to see how others have given. On whether and how to give oneself, one could do worse than Jesus in a rare moment of tact: enter into thy closet, and do not sound a trumpet before thee.
Have you read The Gift, by Lewis Hyde? It explores some of this territory. Great book.
Why I have not!