I am Not a Humanist

I've read a few things in the last week or so that have me thinking, specifically while I do some painting and woodwork in the house and my mind is free to wander. What I've been thinking about is how power structures get naturalized and how we (in the general sense) fight or argue to keep those structures in place without recognizing (willfully or in blissful ignorance) that these things are not in nature or of nature but naturalized as such. One of these things is the divisional structures of universities which slot us into humanities, physical sciences, arts, and social sciences. These are not "natural" divisions, but clearly an organizing structure that is meant to manage people, not necessarily knowledge. It's about how we allocate value and resources, not about how we think, interact with the world, or experience life. To be a humanist, social scientist, arts practitioner or physical scientist isn't a thing inherent in our work or based on where we reside in university structures (the same could be said of our disciplinary or departmental positions). It is not, in other words, an identity. To call ourselves by these structures is to invest ourselves in the naturalization of a specific way of organizing the world that is inseparable from politics. It is to defend a specific socio-political order that is not natural but has been naturalized. In other words, there is a reason I resist calling myself a classicist and why I do not call myself a humanist. 

We can see this type of people management process in the name of defending a naturalized socio-political order in education (or, as the University of Toronto now calls it "people strategy") in things like the list the Wisconsin Republican party wishes to see banned from public schools (up through universities). The list is a "what's what" of stuff that questions power developed over the last few decades often within social science and humanities programs at universities as part of critical engagement with the world we inhabit. Some of this stuff has by now been coopted into the university and corporate machines that reproduce the status quo, so seeing it on a banned list is funny (like "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion" or "Diversity Training"). The total list, which can be found here, is absurd--my favorite is banning the word "intersection"; what do we call the place where streets connect?  

The current bans are all centered on race and gender -- the very things that many of my colleagues in "classics" still consider "fringe" or "ancillary" to the study of antiquity despite decades of research and teaching on these topics and despite the fact that half the human population in antiquity was ALSO women and despite the fact that race (though not biorace as it manifests in the modern world) also existed in antiquity. The humanities, for the better, I think, has been invested in understanding and engaging these aspects of the human experience for many years now. In doing so, however, it has decentered (oops! that's one of the words on the bad list!) more traditional focus on what is inarguably elite men and their primary concerns and perspective of the world. This is why humanities is being attacked and shrunk within the university. To ignore this is to ignore context. To ignore context is to argue and defend a humanities divorced from humans. A humanities that isn't simply a device for maintaining a Christian education under the guise of "universal morality" is a threat to the status quo. 

Reasons that "humanities" and "classics" in their current form are being dismantled are manifold. It has been the trajectory of those of us who are generally placed within the humanities divisions of our colleges to increasingly push against disciplinarity and to seek intellectual engagement with our colleagues in other "divisions". We don't see why these "divisions" need to actually divide us so thoroughly. Disciplinarity and divisional structures, of course, are meant to divide us. But neither knowledge nor the humans who seek it can reside strictly within the oubliettes we have crafted for ourselves. We want to see the sky in all its vastness. We want to be free. But that means undermining the very people management system that provides us with structure in our lives. For this reason, we must be destroyed.

To be free floating entities at a university without majors, minors, departments, disciplines, divisions, or (perhaps most importantly) budgets and endowments to rest our sense of value and purpose upon, is scary. And, of course, it disadvantages those who have built their existence upon all of these divisions and who thrive within the system because they are built for the system. To want to move and think and be outside of this often comfortable and comforting (even while alienating and oppressive) regime requires rethinking how and what we value. It requires a whole slew of things on the banned words list: deconstruction, critical self awareness, critical self reflection, decentering, interrupting. It means staring the systems of power in the face, recognizing them for what they are, and understanding that continuing to inhabit them without resistance can only be intentional --there is no unconscious or unintentional bias in a true human centered education. Because we cannot truly study humanity and not know that our structures result in exclusions, oppressions, and bias. If we choose to defend or reproduce these structures without resisting them and working to change them, we are choosing exclusions, oppressions, and bias. I am not a humanist, if humanist means continuing to do things the way they have always been done. 

And so we find ourselves in a strange situation where those of us who find disciplinarity and divisionalism restrictive and nothing more than mechanisms for maintaining a naturalized status quo where elite male and Christian perspectives and valuations are centered as normative (damn! I cannot stop with these bad words) are participating in our own dismantling as an academic discipline at the hands of a human management system that only wants that which reproduces and supports itself. Those who embrace traditional disciplinarity and the values that support and help reproduce the current system defend the value of disciplines and the humanities through something that cannot, in fact, be taught through reading books --morality. 

Humanities by itself cannot teach morality or ethics -- we need to be one with our colleagues across disciplines and divisions --physical sciences, arts, social sciences, and humanities working together and through each other. Though it is unclear if even the most robustly well-rounded university education can create "discerning moral agents" (to quote my university's mission statement). Despite focusing our studies and teaching and valuing humanity more broadly, openly, and realistically than those invested in universalism and traditional structures and hierarchies, we are considered the "real" threat to the traditional "humanities" that themselves can only be kept within the modern university so long as it functions to enforce an unreal idea that there is a universal human experience or morality that is reflected in the current order of things. This is to naturalize the unnatural. 

I don't want to nor can I in good conscience be doing a job the goal of which is to reinforce the naturalization of the status quo. As far as I am concerned, if being a humanist means imparting or discovering "universal truths" in texts instead of engaging in a critical inquiry of the relationships between those texts and both their original and continuing contexts, then I don't want to be a humanist. In fact, this sort of humanism is, to me, anti-human, just as any science that purports to be purely objective and divorced from contexts is. There is no universal truth that should not be interrogated, no morality that is embedded in nature that should be accepted without question, no status quo that must be defended in the name of any artificial disciplinary or administrative people management system. To defend these things as inherently necessary or valuable means that one is either comfortable with the system, resigned to it, or benefits from it.  

And this is by design only a small portion of the human population. Any "classics", any "history", any "philosophy", and "biology", and "physics", any "political science" that depends upon traditional hierarchies, distributions of knowledge and resources, intellectual categories, proprietary methodologies, or claims to morality or ethics is a dead end and an agent of entrenched power. No thank you. 

Work, Not Work -- It's All the Same

 Some days I don't work. 

As a result, nothing of the dozen projects I need to finish (or start) get done.

Other days, I work.

 But the result is that none of the dozen projects I need to finish (or start) get done. 

Work, don't work. It all ends the same.

I've been trying to figure out why nothing seems to get done no matter how much or how little I work and I have no answers. I do know that my brain is a mess -- I can barely string more than a few sentences of a thought together before it starts to break down. I try repeatedly to summon up something of the ideas I've been pondering for years to put them to page and all I get are fragments.

I am surrounded by the fragments of my projects -- piles of unread or half read scholarship and primary sources, partially written chapters and other documents, partially translated texts, unfinished windows in the kitchen, unfinished ceilings, unstained stairs I ripped the carpet off 3 years ago, half painted walls in the entry of the house, a light fixture unboxed but sitting in pieces. I hardly even notice that one anymore. 

Part of the issue lies, of course, with the ADHD and the difficulties of keeping myself on task --except when I hyperfocus, though what I hyperfocus on is not really within my control. My list of active symptoms is long:

  • missing details and becoming distracted easily

  • trouble focusing on the task at hand

  • becoming bored quickly

  • becoming confused easily or daydreaming frequently

  • seeming not to listen when spoken to directly

  • ​​having difficulty following through on tasks or assignments

  • losing or forgetting things or events

  • fidgeting or squirming

  • talking nonstop

  • saying inappropriate things without thinking

  • being impatient or rude

  • interrupting or butting into other peoples’ conversations

  • having difficulty waiting your turn

Not all of these impact my writing and work, but most of them do. I look at the list and I wonder how I ever got anything done (or how I have any friends). But hyperfocus properly aimed is truly an amazing thing.

Another reason is just mental exhaustion. Between the overwork of doing both my professor position and museum director position for 5 years and the intense uptick in requests for my time by...everyone and the strangeness that is COVID life, I am just spent. Sometimes I don't sleep well and when I don't sleep well, I can't think well. Somedays I sleep like a champion, but my energy is wasted away in I don't even know what, but it usually involves driving my child to some tournament or sports event or something. Maybe it is announcing the high school field hockey games? Or helping install new floors at the fencing club. My time is rarely my own.

Another reason may be futility. Of the 5 things I have finished since 2019, only 2 of those are even close to seeing the light of day currently. Both of those come out in separate volumes in December-ish. The other 3, 2 of which are to my mind the best scholarship I have written to date and 1 of which (my piece on race and metics) is one of the most important things I have ever written, are languishing with editors. One of them I have not received even comments from the editors on in the 18 months since I submitted it. Another has been revised and reviewed by the press, but is waiting on work on the intro and some of the other chapters. The third I never received feedback from the editor, but it went out to review also like 18 months ago and I have not heard anything since. It's like the best stuff I have ever written has gone into the wind never to be seen or heard from again.

It really does make it hard to put words to page when there seems to be no hope anyone will ever read the words you've written.

Its likely a combination of all of these things that makes working and not working all the same in the end. No matter how much I work, I get nowhere, nothing gets done, or it gets done and goes into a void.

The other issue may be that there is so much work that I have no way to devote myself singularly to any thing and so the fragmenting of my brain continues even in times of supposed concentration and I can't write about poverty because thoughts about colonialist fashion trends keep intruding, all while ancient Greek sources on women and centuries of ideas of race and ethnicity swirl around in my mind like a hurricane.

To try to focus on each project, I go back and read things past Rebecca has written on the topic. It helps for a few minutes, but then I either realize that these things are themselves not yet published and seem like they never will be (but I can't duplicate them or, I guess, even quote them or cite them as they languish with the various editors). I also wonder how past Rebecca ever wrote anything so concise, effective, or...finished.

I haven't even been able to finish writing a blog post in months. I've started three. Only this one -- which involves no real work other than typing my fragmented and fractured thoughts -- is close to completion.

So, work, don't work. At this stage, my results are the same. Most days, I wonder why I even try.