The Humanities and Public Life

The Humanities and Public Life

Edited by Peter Brooks , With Hilary Jewett


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This volume tests the proposition that the humanities can, and at their best do, represent a commitment to ethical reading. And that this commitment, and the training and discipline of close reading that underlie it, represent something that the humanities need to bring to other fields: to professional training, and to public life. What leverage does reading, of the attentive sort practiced in the interpretive humanities, give you on life? Does such reading represent or produce an ethics? The question was posed for many of us in the humanities by the "Torture Memos" released by the Justice Department a few years ago, presenting arguments that justified the use of torture by our government with the most twisted, ingenious, perverse, and unethical interpretation of legal texts. No one trained in the rigorous analysis of poetry, we want to claim, could possibly engage in such bad-faith interpretation without professional conscience intervening to say: this is not possible. Teaching the humanities, appears to many a disempowered profession - and status - within American culture. Yet the ability to read critically the messages that society, politics, and culture bombard us with may be more than ever needed training in a world in which the manipulation of minds and hearts is more and more what running the world is all about. This volume brings together a group of distinguished scholars and intellectuals in debate on the public role and importance of the humanities. Their exchange may suggest that Shelley was not wrong to insist that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind: cultural change carries everything in its wake. The attentive interpretive reading practiced in the humanities ought to be an export commodity to other fields, and to take its place in the public sphere.

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  • Paperback | 172 pages
  • 152 x 228 x 14mm | 280g
  • 01 Mar 2014
  • Fordham University Press
  • New York
  • English
  • 0823257053
  • 9780823257058
  • 402,912

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Author Information

Peter Brooks is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholar at the University Center for Human Values and the Department of Comparative Literature at Princeton University. Hilary Jewett, Assistant Director of the "Ethics of Reading" project, is a lawyer, literary scholar, and editor.

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Review quote

"The Humanities and Public Life, an original, provocative, multi-voiced commentary on the state and possibilities of the humanities, strikes fresh notes in what has become a rather tired (though often desperately earnest) conversation. Although its essays repeatedly take unexpected directions, it suggests a unified way of thinking about issues that might appear disparate."-Patricia Meyer Spacks, Edgar F. Shannon, Professor Emerita, University of Virginia "Like Ruth, homesick among the alien corn, humanities scholarship seems lost in the cold wilderness of instrumental reason. The Humanities and Public Life is a tonic and refreshing conversation about the possibility of redemption."-Robert Post, Yale Law School "More than just a collection of smart essays, The Humanities and Public Life leaves ample room for discussion, dialogue, and dissent among its distinguished participants. This volume crackles with intellectual energy . Strongly recommended for anyone concerned with the ethics of reading and the public good of the humanities."-Rita Felski, University of Virginia "This is a highly original and deeply exhilarating contribution to public debate about the value of the humanities. The scholars convened by Brooks are individually first-rate and diverse in field, representing literary studies, philosophy, politiical theory, law, and humanistic social science. Their insightful brief essays (it does not denigrate the others if I single out Elaine Scarry's beautiful meditation on the imagination and Jonathan Lear's haunting evocation of cultural loss) are framed by vigorous discussion and genuine interdisciplinary exchange. Stimulating for scholars and non-scholars alike, this book is unique for the range and quality of perspectives it makes available."-Martha C. Nussbaum, University of Chicago

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