Tuesday, December 13, 2016

"Our attitudes to artworks are much more unpredictable and surprising than a lot of social theories allow for"

Comic. Absurd. Pathetic. Embarrassing.

Daily Nous
Ingrid Robeyns, professor of philosophy and holder of the Ethics and Institutions Chair at the Utrecht University, has won a 2 million euro grant from the European Research Council to pursue her research on “limitarianism” over the next five years.

Her project is called “Can Limitarianism Be Justified? A Philosophical Analysis of Limits on the Distribution of Economic and Ecological Resources,” or Fair Limits, for short. Here is a little about it:

Inequalities in wealth are significant and on average increasing, and various ecological sinks and resources are overused. These circumstances should prompt us to rethink what fairness entails in the distribution of economic and ecological material resources. In particular, are there good grounds to opt for upper limits in the distribution of those resources? Are there, from a moral point of view, certain limits in our appropriation or use of material resources that should not be crossed? Can we say, either individually or collectively, that at some point we are polluting too much and using too many natural resources, or that we are having too much wealth? If so, why—and if not, why not?…

The Fair Limits project will not only push the boundaries of the philosophy of distributive justice, but also pose some fundamental questions of the contemporary dominant paradigm in thinking about justice. Methodologically, this will be done by developing methods for normative political philosophy in non-ideal conditions. In addition, Fair Limits also entails a critical dialogue with non-liberal philosophies, such as Confucian philosophy, African Philosophy, and Indigenous philosophies, to reconsider the soundness of basic assumptions in contemporary liberal theories of justice. Fair Limits thus has the potential to contribute to a paradigm shift in philosophical analysis of questions of distributive justice. 
You can learn more about the project and the award here.
Chronicle of Higher Education

What's Wrong With Literary Studies?
Some scholars think the field has become cynical and paranoid
In the low-budget realm of humanities grantmaking, a University of Virginia press release this May came as a shock. The Danish National Research Foundation had awarded roughly $4.2 million to a literary-studies project led by an English professor at Virginia, Rita Felski. And this wasn’t yet another big-ticket digital-humanities effort to map the social history of the United States or crunch the cultural data stored in five million books. This money would help Felski assemble a team of scholars to investigate the social uses of literature.
For Felski, the windfall validates a nearly decade-long push to change the way literature and other art forms are studied. In a series of manifestoes, she has developed a sophisticated language for talking about our attachments to literature and prodded literary scholars to reconsider their habit of approaching texts like suspicious detectives on the hunt for hidden meanings. Felski’s message boils down to prefixes. Literary critics have emphasized "de" words, like "debunk" and "deconstruct." But they’ve shortchanged "re" words — literature’s capacity to reshape and recharge perception.

"There’s actually quite a diverse range of intellectual frameworks, politically, theoretically, philosophically," says Felski, who specializes in literary theory and method. "Yet there’s an underlying similarity in terms of this mood of vigilance, wariness, suspicion, distrust, which doesn’t really allow us to grapple with these really basic questions about why people actually take up books in the first place, why they matter to people."

Though the size of her grant may be unique, Felski’s sense of frustration is not. Her work joins a groundswell of scholarship questioning a certain kind of critique that has prevailed in literary studies in recent decades. "Critique" can be a blurry word — isn’t all criticism critique? — but in Felski’s usage it carries a specific flavor. Critique means a negative commentary, an act of resistance against dominant values, an intellectual discourse that defines itself against popular understanding.

Felski sketches the shake-up of literary studies that started in the ’60s as a shift from criticism ("the interpretation and evaluation of literary works") to critique ("the politically motivated analysis of the larger philosophical or historical conditions shaping these works"). Most frameworks taught today in a literary-theory class, such as feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, structuralism, and psychoanalysis, would count as variants of critique. 
Contemporary literary scholarship has never lacked for detractors: Down with politics in the academy! Back to the Great Books! What’s different now is that the questioning of critique is coming from people steeped in its theories. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a founder of queer theory and sexuality studies, galvanized this soul-searching with a 2003 essay arguing that theory had spawned a paranoid mood in literary studies. The debate gained momentum with a special issue of the journal Representations in 2009, when Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus challenged a method of interpretation known as symptomatic reading, in which critics read texts like psychoanalysts probing for repressed meanings.

Then, last year, came Lisa Ruddick’s essay "When Nothing Is Cool," a hand grenade lobbed at her field.
I didn't catch that last reference at first. "A tortured milquetoast epistle".

It gets worse.
...That question of attachments — to novels and films, paintings and music — is at the heart of Felski’s next book. She operates from the premise that people’s everyday experience of art is much more mysterious than commonly thought. Consider the story of Zadie Smith’s changing relationship to Joni Mitchell. The novelist once dismissed Mitchell’s music as, in Felski’s words, "a white girl’s warbling." Then one day Smith could no longer listen to Mitchell’s songs without crying. Why? To think about such questions, Felski draws on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, looking closely at first-person experience. So, in that musical epiphany, Smith is in her 30s. She and her husband are driving to a wedding in Wales, with Mitchell playing on the car radio. They bicker. They spend an afternoon at Tintern Abbey, where Smith gazes out at the green hills. And suddenly she’s humming Joni Mitchell. Felski writes about the way such different strands of experience come together to shape perceptions of art.

"Our attitudes to artworks are much more unpredictable and surprising than a lot of social theories allow for," she says. "And therefore we need to look at these specific examples of a relationship to an artwork. A lot of specific examples are going to explode our theories rather than confirm them."
The academic "discovery" of Zadie Smith is perverse of course. We're begun to move on from Shalizi and Moretti, but just slightly.

continuing in the next post.

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