Reconciliation and the Future of the Humanities

This piece takes its inspiration from a recent “Arts of Conversation” talk by Cary Miller.  Dr Miller is Anishinaabe, descending from St Croix and Leech Lake communities, and the new Head of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba. She came to us from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she was a member of the History Department and Director of American Indian Studies. Her book, Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760-1845 (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), provides a sustained examination of the nature and character of Anishinaabeg authority and socio-political organization, highlighting its sophistication, subtlety and accomplishments in the fraught and constantly shifting context of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century North America. For her Arts of Conversation discussion, Dr Miller turned to the subject of “Reconciliation in the Humanities.”

Reconciliation in the humanities, Professor Miller notes, often amounts to incorporating into curricula and research the historical, cultural, and social-political realities of indigenous communities that have long been ignored, obscured, or misrepresented. This is an understandable approach, but also a rather simplistic one and we ought to question its sufficiency. In North America, as elsewhere, reconciliation with indigenous communities has been unconscionably neglected. What is more, the challenges, incompleteness, and failures of reconciliation are made manifest daily, and all too frequently in devastating and plainly inexcusable ways, as the verdicts in the Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie murder trials attest (to take only two recent examples). Surely, then, Dr Miller is correct to stress that the idea of reconciliation in the humanities does not rest merely on adding indigenous content to humanities curricula. It must also, she argues, involve questioning one of the central tenants of Humanism—that “man is the measure of all things”—and with this the traditional gaze and cultural assumptions of the humanities disciplines.

At the heart of this discussion we find the same two core questions noted by the historian Robert Schneider in his discussion of the humanities in historical and global perspective. One, are there common patterns or modes of thought that justify intellectual confidence in the relevance of something called “the humanities” across greatly disparate cultures? Two, if we conclude that there are, do we not risk reifying “the humanities,” a category that clearly emerged from a particular historical European cultural context, by carrying it into regions where it has no inborn expression or meaning, or, more problematically, where its meaning is a product of European colonization and its attendant imperial institutions?

The University of Amsterdam Professor of Humanities, Rens Bod, for one, clearly answers yes to the first of these questions. Regarding the second, he says that while the contexts of “humanistic studies differ immensely across disciplines, regions, and periods, there appear to be deep commonalities at the level of principles used and patterns found,” making “comparison between humanistic practices across disciplines, regions and periods” possible.

Bod’s work is enormously ambitious and doubtless there is lots of room for debate. But so too does he leave other scholars plenty of room to manoeuvre and variously contribute to the grand project of not only developing the history of the humanities as a subfield (a project Bods has led with remarkable success), but also, and perhaps more importantly, to fostering a history of knowledge-making more generally. Bod reflects some the foundational ways the categories and conceptualizations of research are shifting at present, and in this way he has some important things in common with the decolonizing projects of those like Professor Miller.

Coming to the U of M from the U.S., where she spent the first part of her career, Dr Miller has been struck by how Canada has at least come to place where discussions of reconciliation with its indigenous communities are actively taking place in the public sphere. Obviously, there is a great deal of work yet to do, but this situation contrasts sharply with that in the U.S. Professor Miller described these efforts at reconciliation as a “brave” undertaking because they represent an effort to redefine our understanding of who we are as a collective people. The discomfort and tension they produce, she reasonably suggests, is evidence that we do not necessarily know ourselves. What is more, the work carried out in the humanities disciplines is especially important, she believes, because of the powerful bearing they have on questions of personal identity and cultural understanding, two keys to meaningful reconciliation.

In the course of the conversation, Dr Miller referred to the lasting influences of St Augustine, Charlemagne and the Papacy, the Crusades, that hateful piece of genocidal nonsense, the Requerimiento, and the theories of Hobbes and Locke, among others. Her point was that in our humanities teaching and research we may have been misleading ourselves for many generations by uncritically holding up as canonical the very scholars and institutions who have led us to make decisions about the indigenous peoples of North America based upon “false conclusions”. In order for reconciliation to succeed, therefore, this canon must be critically revisited, the entrenched and often latent cultural assumptions underpinning it must be exposed and challenged, and the gravitational centre of society duly shifted.

Though at times implied, there was, to my mind, surprisingly little discussion of either the traditional Judeo-Christian anthropology founded on the core notion that man was made in God’s image, or the unrivalled authority of the Mosaic record of creation found in the Bible. Of course, in a discussion of this type one cannot cover all the bases. Indeed one may not even want to. Certainly, these days questions of theology and articles of faith cannot typically be relied upon to drive general conversation. Still, one does not get much more canonical than these basic, long-unquestioned religious ideas. Nor can one deny their crucial importance to better understanding, and thus rectifying, many of the assumptions, theories, and false conclusions applied to the indigenous peoples of North America (and elsewhere) in the last several centuries. Also, to pivot slightly, matters of spiritual connection seem to be important to both the project of reconciliation, as well as the shifting categories and conceptualizations of humanities research.

Here I briefly diverge some from Professor Miller’s discussion, though what follows is, I think, still informed by, and relevant to it.   It seems to me is that we are on the brink of some big conceptual changes in history and the humanities. There is, for instance, a growing interest in the non-human things that make us human. One striking example of this might be the Human Microbiome Project that links our mood and even cognitive functions to the microorganisms that live in our gut. But other broad trends also come to mind. Scholars like Timothy Morton are finding solidarity between human and non-human beings, crossing the traditional conceptual boundaries between life and non-life; while others talk of “loving mushrooms”, and “thinking like Mountains” or forests. There is also growing work examining such things as the conscientiousness of cephalopods; the communication networks of trees; and the linguistic potential of whales. All of this points towards a revised, less exceptional, less anthropocentric understanding of the human animal. There is a new emphasis on our biological nature, mortality, and dependence on other species.

And thus we return to Dr Miller’s efforts to link the process of reconciliation with a fundamental questioning of that once standard tenant of Humanisim—that humanity is the measure of all things. Significantly, all of these scholarly developments seem to recall something of Anishinaabeg notions of power and manidoo. As Dr Miller explains in her book, Ogimaag:

For the Anishinaabeg the clearest demonstration of power was the lack of dependence. Hence the animal and plant beings had more power than humans, since they could exist independently of humans with little difficulty, while humans were exceedingly dependent upon them for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. … This created an odd paradox within Anishinaabeg social organization in which individuals aspired to independence but considered it achievable only through the establishment of the widest possible networks of mutual obligation with both human and manidoog partners.

In addition to de-centering humanity in the natural order, much of this work affords a welcome opportunity to reintegrate important spiritual dimensions (e.g. manidoo) into the conceptual frame, enabling a re-enchantment of cultural worlds and opening alternate ways to narrate the past and conceptualize the present. All of this is very exciting.   Humanities research is changing and its future role in projects like reconciliation is, as Professor Miller rightly stresses, crucial and, one hopes, efficacious. Extending Rorty’s claims for philosophy, the humanities represent a form of “social hope,” a means of not simply knowing ourselves, but a way of “creating ourselves” and of shaping who we want to be, as well as a more just and fair world.

Paul Jenkins, University of Manitoba Institute for the Humanities

14 February 2018

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