Butler, Schiller, and the Value of the Humanities

Ran across this stirring graduation speech given by Judith Butler at McGill University this year. In it she makes a case for the importance of the humanities (something we’ve been talking about quite a lot) in education and in the world beyond.

She begins by posing the question many have been asking of late:

What value do the humanities have? Can we measure their impact, their output, their profits?

She argues that reading is transporting and transformative, that it fosters a world of greater tolerance:

To find ourselves unexpectedly in the middle of the ancient texts we read but also to find ways of living, thinking, acting and reflecting that belong to times and spaces we have never known. The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are,  to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known and to understand that in some abiding and urgent sense we share a world….Ideally we lose ourselves in what we read only to return to ourselves transformed and part of a more expansive world. In short we become more critical and capacious in our thinking and our acting.

She maintains that a study of the humanities aids us in civic life, but that this impact cannot, nor should not, be quantified. She confronts the concept of citizenship:

We cannot quantify such knowledge without losing the very value that such knowledge has for us. Learning what it means to practice citizenship and learning what it means to be without rights of citizenship, either having lost them or never having been granted them in part or in full. Learning what it means in other words to live in the shadow world of non- recognition and how best to counter it ethically, legally and politically.

But reading isn’t just literature, it is everything (including theater and performance):

 As we know, an active and sensate democracy requires that we learn how to read well not just texts but images and sounds to translate across languages across forms of media ways of performing listening acting making art and theory.

She makes a compelling case for the power of thoughtfulness in our daily lives:

Even as we seek to affirm ways of acting and transforming the world We also have to affirm ways of being thoughtful. Ways of reading, listening, learning. To continue learning even as we leave the university and to take those critical practices with us onto the street, into the spaces of work and love and into our public lives.

A study of humanities grants the “time to consider the world” and ultimately serves in what she considers our greatest goal, eliminating violence. An education in the humanities allows us to consider and affirm:

this earth our ethical obligation to live among to those who are invariably different from ourselves, to demand recognition for our histories and our struggles at the same time that we lend that to others, to live our passions without causing harm for others and to know the difference between raw prejudice and distortion and sound critical judgment.

The first steps towards non violence, which is surely an absolute obligation we all bear is to begin to think carefully and to ask others to do the same.

Great, right? If you’d like to watch the speech you can do so here.

This made me think a bit of a few selections I’ve been reading by Schiller—The Stage as a Moral Institution and On the Use of the Chorus in Tragedy. And though Butler and Schiller almost certainly have differing conceptions of morality, they do both make the case for the humanities as serving us ethically, as being a part of making the world somehow better. And both are coming at it from the position of what reading these “texts” does for the reader/spectator.

He calls the stage the:

handmaid of religion and philosophy. From these pure sources it draws its high principles and exalted teachings, and presents them in a lovely form. The soul swells with noblest emotions when a divine ideal is placed before it. (251*)

And states that:

The stage teaches us to be more considerate to the unfortunate and to judge gently. We can only pronounce on a man when we know his whole being and circumstances….Humanity and tolerance have begun to prevail in our time at courts of princes and in courts of law. A large share of this may be due to the influence of the stage in showing man and his secret motives. (252-3)

According to him, theater is liberating, it awakens man:

Genuine art, on the other hand, does not have as its object a mere transitory game. Its serious purpose is not merely to translate the human being into a momentary dream of freedom, but to actually make him free. It accomplishes this by awakening a power within him, by using and developing this power to remove to a distance of objectivity the sensory world, which otherwise only weights us down as raw material and oppresses us as a blind force, to transform the sensory world into a free creation of our spirit, and to control the material world through ideas. (256)

And ultimately, while watching theater:

The individual shares in the general ecstasy, and his breast has now only space for an emotion: he is a man. (254)

*Theatre/Theory/Theatre edited Daniel Gerould.

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