The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities

Review by Jonathan Glover

Christopher Fynsk, The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities
(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004)

[1] In their ability to deal with questions that exceed the limits of scientism—questions of life and death, the self and other, issues of ontology and metaphysics, "the question of the human itself" (70)—the humanities are a philosophical and ethical necessity in this age of globalization and unfettered technological progress. These timely issues form the argumentative crux of The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities, the latest work from noted Heidegger scholar, philosopher, and literary theorist Christopher Fynsk. With administrative positions and professorial seats in comparative literature and continental philosophy at the State University of New York at Binghamton and the European Graduate School, Fynsk uses his experience to link the questions of literature and language to the concerns of philosophy.

[2] Fynsk's argument is particularly compelling in his use of Bill Readings' The University in Ruins. Readings, via Fynsk's analysis, argues "that the 'idea of culture' on which the modern research university was founded has given way to a notion of 'excellence' that lacks any referent beyond technocratic standards of productivity and market performance" (46). Using telling administrative memoranda from large American universities, Fynsk connects Readings' notion of a school of "excellence" to the slashing of funding—and even respect—for the humanities occurring across campuses nationwide. The school of "excellence" puts the humanities in competition for university resources with fields that serve the needs of multinational industry like biotechnology and pharmaceutics. With their ability to entice investiture from agribusiness, biogenetic firms, and pharmaceutical giants, the hard and natural sciences have taken primacy over the humanities, a field whose relevance to an economically "ends-directed" (43) university is less apparent, if not incompatible. It should be noted that Fynsk's goal is not to denigrate the work being done in the sciences, but rather to reassert the importance of the ethico-moral and sociohistorical inquiry that defines humanities research. While Fynsk is careful to articulate the autotelic importance of the humanities, their complementary importance to the ethics of hard science becomes equally apparent throughout his prose. In fact, the troubling cleft imposed between the humanities and the sciences resides at the center of the crisis Fynsk elucidates. He makes the correlation between the rise of "excellence" and the denigration of the humanities undeniable, forcing the following question to form in my mind: In a university system based on "excellence," a mere codeword for corporate utility, how can the humanities (with their troubling moral, ethical, political, and philosophical questions—questions that never bode well for the ethics of rabid business expansion and capital accumulation) exist in anything other than a position of unpopular antagonism? Consequently, in this atmosphere of compulsory "excellence," devaluing and disempowering the humanities becomes nothing more than good business practice.

[3] With his case made for the precarious position of the humanities, Fynsk begins arguing for their academic and public (a harmful dichotomy he also takes issue with) importance by addressing American cultural reactions to the 9/11 tragedy. As Fynsk explains:

There was a moment, in the weeks following the events of September 11, 2001, when a need for renewed thinking on fundamental cultural values, on the meaning and possibility of civic participation, and on notions as basic as mourning and commemoration, on peace and war, emerged unmistakably in American consciousness. This awareness receded dramatically as the media assumed the national work of mourning, and it quickly ceded to ideological certainty in the administrative consolidation (under the name of a "war on terror") of a conservative agenda. (42)

Fynsk continues, asking the vital question, "Why did this articulation [of the humanities as ethicomoral sentinel] fail to appear?" (42). Fynsk demonstrates how a consortium of "economic, technocratic, and disciplinary forces" (42-43) (the same forces driving the humanities out of the school of "excellence") did the initial work of redirecting the American citizenry toward consumer-productivity and ethico-political complaisance, but also indicts humanists themselves for failing to articulate the humanities as a medium for reflection and insightful inquiry—that is, the role of the humanities "in the development of cultural self-understanding, [and] ethical and historical thinking . . ." (42-43).

[4] Fynsk places the failure of the humanities to emerge legitimized and ready to do the good work of sociocultural reflection on the doorstep of critical theory, an argument that Fynsk fails to make as poignantly as his defense of the humanities. According to Fynsk, the humanist reaction to 9/11 was weak because "immanent engagement" has disappeared, consumed by the "infinite contexts offered by" a critical theory whose object of inquiry is—rather than a concrete event or art object—only the "semblance of an object, 'culture' . . ." (75). While Fynsk's critique of conceptually-enamored theory is refreshing in its fearlessness and refusal to tow a theoretical party line, his attempt to delineate between "immanent engagement" and materially estranged brands of critical theory lacks sustained exemplification and conveniently overlooks "immanent" uses of critical theory (amidst many others, Homi Bhabha's extended discourse on the theory/practice dichotomy in The Location of Culture and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's immanent-to-the-point-of-intimate theoretical ventures in Touching, Feeling and Epistemology of the Closet are exemplary).

[5] Moreover, Fynsk seems reluctant to provide discrete examples of the theoretical approaches he sees chained to a "metaposition" (x) that "foreclose[s] access to the question of materiality or real experience" (60). There is also little explication of what his remedy, "immanent engagement," would look like. He offers Celan's call to "seek reality" (xii) and Foucault's attempt to articulate a "pure description of discursive events" (63) as models but stalls before addressing the problems raised by introducing these citations—namely, which or whose reality should theorists seek? And, from whose vantage point, if not a self-consciously subjective "metaposition," can discursive description even approach the semblance of purity? In perhaps his most cogent description of immanent engagement, Fynsk explains that research in the humanities should engage "the thought of an experience with language . . . in a way that remains foreign to social scientific methodologies" (69). He continues, saying, "There are sites, occasions, where dance occurs as a material event that opens the fundamental questions to which I have pointed, sites where theater occurs, where literature or even philosophy occurs—just as there are occasions when free speech occurs, or moments when a strangely resonant language emerges in a psychoanalytic setting" (69-70). In passages like these, Fynsk is insistent that meaningful research in the humanities arises from "immanent engagement" with an artistic or linguistic event and needlessly sequesters the methods of the social sciences, methods that can add tremendous torque to interdisciplinary humanities research.

[6] Fynsk's argument, in its reliance on an ambiguous immanent engagement/critical theory binary, is also dependent on an inordinate amount of reader inference. For example, many of the critic-to-object relationships that can be articulated—the semiotician's investigation of the sign, the literary theorist's reading of a text, the radical historicist's or cultural theorist's revaluation of a documented event—proceed, fundamentally, from "immanent engagement" with an artistic, linguistic, or historic event. Given that these theoretical approaches spring from procedural traditions of textual contact, what Fynsk really seems to take issue with is the misuse or abuse of theory, what might be considered "bad theory" or "poor reading." In light of his argument for the humanities as a powerful tool for ethico-political reflection, the implication of Fynsk's argument appears to be that bad theory—those overly abstract theoretical approaches he alludes to—endanger the humanistic enterprise by politicizing theory and forsaking research in the humanities to ideological—liberal, libertarian, multicultural—imperatives. Fynsk may refrain from citing specific theoretical abuses in an attempt to spare legitimate theory-driven political activism from undue censure, but ultimately his argument pays the price for this discretion.

[7] Additionally, the book suffers structurally from a three-chaptered schema that delays the entry of Fynsk's main thrust till the text's halfway point. The first two chapters—"A Politics of Thought: Gérard Granel's De l'université" and "Acts of Engagement"—are reworkings of earlier essays that, while similar in concern, are supplemental rather than integral to Fynsk's case. These earlier essays, in their appropriations of Granel's challenge to Heidegger's conception of the university as "central and privileged site for social change" (12) and Derrida's diagnosis of "the end of philosophy," would serve The Claim of Language better if subsumed into the resonant prose of the third chapter. For instance, when Fynsk addresses "Granel's view that the place of the university in modern society can only be understood now from the basis of technical imperatives of capital" (14), there is a sense of disruption between this grim assessment and the book's late-emerging call for a revitalization of the humanities. While these points are corollary (the erosion of financial and administrative support for the humanities being an effect of the academy's technocratization) and argued as such later, this premature venture into the mechanics of university commodification confuses in its failure to articulate how the humanities either aid or obfuscate this development. Fynsk will return to this point much later, though, and finely elucidate the power of the humanities to challenge and undercut the eclipse of "excellence." It is at this point, perhaps, that the Granel material would be most useful as further evidence of how the humanities can help stall the downward plunge of the university into a multinational trade school/manufacturing complex.

[8] Even more fruitful to Fynsk's thesis, the essay on Derrida's argument for a new philosophy would serve the third chapter even more than the material on Granel. Fynsk economically incorporates the main propositions put forth by Derrida as evidence of traditional philosophy's obsolescence. As Fynsk explains, Derrida had thoroughly noted that "exposure to events . . . beyond the purview of traditional philosophy . . ." had yielded the "end of philosophy" (24). Fynsk explicates these events as:

1. A new global configuration of ethical and juridical issues that have emerged with the modern phenomena of nuclear terror, totalitarianism, genocide and torture, urbanization and ecological catastrophe, and world health issues such as the AIDS pandemic. . . .
2. Technoscientific developments that challenge traditional concepts of life and death (as in medical technology) or space and time (as in developments in the media and communication—transformations that alter the very meaning and constitution of public space).
3. A resurgence of religious movements and associated political forces throughout the world that place new forms of pressure on the values of reason or on notions such as democracy.
4. Cultural displacements—transformations in the arts and their material bases, or transformations in forms of life. (24-25)

This argument runs parallel—to the point of near-interchangeability—with Fynsk's assessment of the humanities as that which can exceed the limits of empirical inquiry, but, due to its appearance as a stand-alone essay, this vital parallel is severed by the book's format. However, structural imbalances and argumentative oversights aside, Fynsk's The Claim of Language: A Case for the Humanities is timely and important, addressing a present crisis in the humanities that too many humanists would prefer to ignore.