A World Void of Our Critical Actions: The Humanities

Allison Guess

Last Thursday at the “Teaching Humanities as a Survival Skill” in the Futures Initiative’s University Worth Fighting for Series, we discussed among many things, how the humanities provides a space for human reflection. If I might add, I would also argue that the humanities also offers an expression of critical systemic observation and to that end, the possibility of other worlds outside the racist and uneven hegemonic. As someone who comes out of a discipline located in both the humanities and social science, I have attempted to be keenly aware, and closely in touch with, the political and social conditions of the humanities. Through observation, I have come to see that the humanities have long been (and quite deliberately) a marginalized sector within the larger academic ecosystem.


As I sat in the back of the room of our discussion, poised, as any diligent note taker would be, I tweeted the commentary that filled the room, hoping for a breath dedicated to question how the humanities remains at the subaltern while simultaneously it is deemed necessity for human survival. I am stunned that this paradox did not come into direct discussion.


The idea of the humanities as part of human survival and also what I would define as a melodious order, of social and political life is not new. Several people have thought of the humanities as such and have taken this idea up, take, for example, Black woman science fiction writer, Octavia Butler. In her 1983 short story “Speech Sounds,” Butler puts voice to this very thought and possibility. Narrating a landscape void of the humanities, Butler journeys us through a world in which mostly all human beings have lost their ability to communicate verbally, contributing to social breakdown. Immensely damned, there are numerous occasions of violence that take place on multiple scales: the physical interpersonal (the human body) and the scalar systemic (societal) violence, all engendered. It is with Butler’s display of violence against the humanities; diminished, receded and failing to maintain subaltern status, that we are able to question the very function of scale as it relates to connections between a geography, empty of the humanities, and socio-human and systemic interactions in visceral decline.


As Butler goes on with the story, chaos and death, oddly become ways of both life and survival. Systemic constructions of scarcity and fear also haunt the people in this story at every phase. For example, Rye, the protagonist, takes many risks, including her venturing away from a scene of wordless, violent madness with a man dressed in police uniform. Coincidentally, yet probably not so surprising to my fellow abolitionist, there are still police in this would that Butler journeys us through, and if not police themselves, present is the visual representation of the policing, as an imposing system, remains. While in this world that Butler imagines human-beings have no voice and no culture, it is easy to make claim that it is also absent of the humanities in both a formal and informal sense. I think this very detail can help us to make some very crucial connections between the attack on the humanities, socio-political order and policing as it relates to our current crises under a global system of supremacy and subjugation.


Returning back to the plot in “Speech Sounds,” it is also very interesting that Rye displays a sort of resistance to the idea that the strange man that she eventually goes off with, is safe, this is regardless of his police uniform. This should lead us to other questions about the various forms of safety beyond policing, as it relates to the humanities and the effects that they have on human life and productions of safe spaces; reducing harm. To continue on with the plot, as Rye journeys away with the man dressed in police clothing she soon finds out that this man can still read a map. Infuriated that he still maintains this skill, Butler highlights something that some of us are already acutely aware of, that is, what I have been trying to articulate above, the relationships between geography, socioeconomic order and the humanities, specifically their enactments and possibilities of modes of liberation and resistance to hegemonic order.


This short story fell into my lap. In fact, I had not read “Speech Sounds” prior to the Futures Initiative discussion, however, in all its supposed randomness as to how I came to engage with this text, Butler’s story gave me an opportunity to think deeper about the humanities and the future of this very unevenly arranged and difficult to navigate settler colonial and racial capitalist world.


Thus as I reflect on my own status as a Black woman geographer who warns against the continual trope of capitalist accumulation, fearful that a world similar to what Butler puts forward, is actually and already on the horizon, I am making these connections. As also concurrent to my personal beliefs is in conversation with the sign that I made at the “Teaching Humanities as a Survival Skill” discussion. It read, “I love the humanities because they help me to navigate a geographically obstructive world.” In that, I was also critiquing and articulating what Butler was evaluating in “Speech Sounds,” an unsafe world mute of the humanities. Again, going back to something that was eloquently stated in the discussion on Thursday, exist the opportunity to reflect within the humanities, my suggestion is before they are all gone and we are in a world similar to the one the Butler puts forward, that we critically reflect on and act against the staunchly imbalanced and obstruction of the world of the now.



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