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Experts in the humanities to discuss future of their discipline

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Three distinguished speakers whose works have influenced the direction of humanities scholarship in the United States will participate in a free public discussion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Stanley Fish, Cary Nelson and E. Ann Kaplan will discuss the prospects for the humanities at 2 p.m. Oct. 22 (Friday) in Foellinger Auditorium, 709 S. Mathews Ave., Urbana. The event, sponsored by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, is titled “The Future of the Humanities: A Discussion on Truth, Politics and the Academy.”

Fish is dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He also is a distinguished professor of English, political science and criminal justice, and the chair of the religious studies committee at UIC. Widely regarded as one of America’s most prominent intellectuals and a longtime leader of the humanities, Fish was chair of Duke University’s influential English department.

Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the Urbana campus. Among the country’s most influential radical intellectuals, he is a founding member of Illinois’ Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and is closely associated with the field of cultural studies, which he helped introduce to the United States.

Kaplan, a professor of English at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, will serve as moderator of the discussion. At the forefront of the academic humanities for several decades, she is the founding director of the Humanities Institute at SUNY-Stony Brook and has made pioneering contributions to the application of humanist and feminist scholarship to popular culture.

The event inaugurates an IPRH initiative on the state of humanities scholarship.

Among the questions the participants will consider: What is the role of the humanities today? How do the humanities function politically? Can the search for truth be a goal of the humanities? Has the postmodern paradigm exhausted itself? Will the humanities still exist in 30 years?

According to Matti Bunzl, IPRH director, something is afoot in the humanities.

“Apocalyptic pronouncements of imminent demise may be exaggerated, but signposts of transformation abound.”

Bunzl, a professor of anthropology at the U. of I., said that over the past few decades the leading lights of humanist scholarship have, “with considerable unanimity, spoken for a certain postmodern consensus. Wielding the tools of theory, and brandishing their political commitments, they have decried objectivity, rationalism and truth. Entire (anti) disciplines sprung from their pronouncements: cultural studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, etc.

“Recent events, though, suggest a turning of tides, or at least a rethinking of paradigms.”

Fish, for example, closely associated with certain trends in postmodernism and poststructuralism, recently caused a stir with a series of opinion pieces that diagnosed a crisis in humanistic scholarship and urged a return to the “pursuit of truth,” as he sees it.

In a May 2004 essay in The New York Times, Fish wrote about a deep malaise in humanistic scholarship. Formerly representing the vanguard of American postmodernism, he railed against its excesses.

“Deploring the university’s politicization, he made a radical suggestion: Rather than fostering irresponsible citizenship and immoral behavior, the academy’s goal should be the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching,” Bunzl said.

A scholar of English literature by training, Fish is the author of such widely influential books as “Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change” and “How Milton Works.”

Fish recently was quoted as saying, “No doubt, the practices of responsible citizenship and moral behavior should be encouraged in our young adults, but it’s not the business of the university to do so, except when the morality in question is the morality that penalizes cheating, plagiarizing and shoddy teaching, and the desired citizenship is defined not by the demands of democracy, but by the demands of the academy.”

A scholar of American poetry, Nelson is the author of important publications such as “Higher Education Under Fire: Politics, Economics, and the Crisis of the Humanities,” “Manifesto of a Tenured Radical” and “Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left.” Nelson’s latest book, “Office Hours: Activism and Change in the Academy,” co-written by Stephen Watt, was published last month.

Nelson recently said: “All culture is and always has been political, just as all cultural participation is politicized. It’s not a matter of choice, but people in higher education are free to choose from among the roles available to them, from activism to avoidance to denial.”

Among Kaplan’s many publications are “Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film, and the Imperial Gaze” and “Playing Dolly: Technocultural Formations, Fantasies, and Fictions of Artificial Reproduction.”

Kaplan was recently quoted as saying: “Surely one can change the world precisely by interpreting it. To deny this is to deny the power of discourse in nature.”

For more information, contact IPRH at 217-244-3344 or visit its Web site.