SOME "PREDICTIONS" FOR 2004
Kimberly Benston is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and a noted scholar of African-American literature and Renaissance literature whose research interests incorporate African-American photography, jazz, sermons, and dance.
“As some wag put it, making predictions is hazardous business, especially about the future. Thus it is with due trepidation that I offer the following crude augury of coming attractions on the stage of humanistic scholarship—trepidation mitigated by the convenient fact that I’m playing with house money, since humanists take as their object of study whatever other humans find interesting and meaningful.
What has proven most meaningfully interesting for the past decade in humanistic study has been the encounter of two major waves of late-twentieth-century inquiry: first, the so-called 'linguistic turn' through which established categories of social experience—literature; politics; sexuality; economics; science—were grasped in their status as representations within a system of related, but competing, representations; and second, the turn to 'cultural studies,' which extended the linguistic turn by legitimating all forms of experience as illuminating features of cultural meaning, but which situated language as one element of significance among many others, including history, class, race, gender, and other ‘material’ dimensions of ‘lived reality.’
Contemporary humanistic inquiry, having recently improvised various mixtures of these two productively, but often contentiously, entangled approaches to human expression, faces the task of boldly exceeding them by freshly returning to fundamental thematic questions: why and how do we read in an age of new electronic media and ‘information explosion’? what models of language and culture best account for the communicative and social violence of the modern world? does humanistic inquiry itself have anything to say about how to live today? Pursuing such questions will, I predict, lead the humanities toward an 'ethical turn,' by which—employing the full intellectual equipage provided by preceding generations’ insights into language and culture—we can revalue the very possibility of 'the human' as a form of thought, witness, and practice.”