Monday, January 08, 2007

Biology and History 4

Don't misunderstand me- I'm not opposed to contextualizing knowledge- after all, that's what intellectual history is. When I study Burke's idea of the sublime, my 'job' is to historicize it, at least to some extent. This is what we do. However, I also think that we need to be careful not to mistake the moon for the finger pointing at it. The 'sublime' is a referent, but not only a referent. It has an objective existence. Burke (and to an extent Kant) are so clear about the experience that I should, having a human central nervous system, be able to experience it as well.

A lousy literary analysis of the sublime that I once read argued that it was a 'trope' that Kant used to denigrate the barbarian Other, who is supposedly deaf to the sublime. But, the problem I have with this sort of 'historicizing' is that it reduces historical figures to deployers of tropes- unwitting liars in a sense. In other words, it argues that the sublime has no objective existence, but Kant's racism not only has an objective existence, but structures his thought. It's no wonder why students come out of university with a bizarre idea that everyone born before 1969 was a quasi-fascist.

Also, it's just a boring argument! After a while, all of these sorts of essays read as:

"____ has no objective existence. ____ is instead a construction of competing discourses that is fluid, contested, and multivalent. ____ is ultimately a trope that is shaped by, and reveals underlying contestations for power." (Fill in the blank)

My take on the sublime is that it relates to a specific affective response to art. Moreover, I think that we can quantify this response in specific neural processes. I think we can empirically verify what Burke and Kant were going on about. So, I think that the 'discourse' was created by nature, and not vice-versa. In other words, I think that our understanding of biology changes, while basic human biology changes much more slowly. I think that Burke's brain was structurally the same as mine, although much wiser.

Boyd puts this in a different way:
"In fact, not everything in human lives is difference. Commonalities also exist, and without those commonalities between people, culture could not exist, since it could not pass from one person to another or one tradition to another. Cultural Critique wants to stress the “situatedness” of all that is human, but wants to define that situation only in terms of particular cultures. But why not also the unique situation of being human, with the special powers evolution has made possible in us?"

He suggests a "biocultural perspective" that accepts commonalities between human beings across cultures and time periods. And, I would argue that we cannot really do what we do- study other human beings, in my case past human beings- without already agreeing to this. We can argue that there is 'no human nature', or that 'there is nothing outside of the text', or stress the 'difference' and 'situatedness' or our subjects. However, we cannot even claim to study them if there isn't some aspect of their humanity that we, being also human, can comprehend.

Of course, let's remember that these constructionist ideas aren't 'hegemonic' in historiography anyway. There are plenty of social historians left who are busy counting the amount of coal that some mine in 19th century Britain produced from year to year, without any doubt that such information has an objective existence. And intellectual history is often written with the belief that we're tracing the development of knowledge, not simply the tropes of eras in history. Even my own (forthcoming!) historiography, when it deals to some extent with airy fairy issues of ontology in 19th century France, is rooted in the idea that each generation was gaining a unique understanding of something that I take for granted, namely being. Moreover, it's going to require an ungodly amount of empirical study of shipping records and manifests!

But I do think that it's high time that we critique les critiques. One needn't agree with the argument (popular among conservatives in the same way that the hagiographic argument is popular among leftists- and equally tone-deaf) that Derrida et alii were a purely destructive influence in academia to agree that their ideas shouldn't be a hegemonic endpoint either.

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