Humanist Anxieties, or, The Fragility of Facts
When you read about Michele Bachmann, you can expect offenses against facticity. But an article I read last month (Cécile Alduy read it too) presented an unexpected Bachmann-take-away message. Fact: “humanism invariably ends in despair.”
It’s odd that a twenty-first-century American politician would worry about the Renaissance. The weird path from Bachmann to a critique of humanism winds back to the evangelist Francis Schaeffer, whom she considers “a tremendous philosopher,” and his film series How Should We Then Live. Sometime in the late-1970s or early-1980s, she was exposed to Schaeffer’s version of history, which includes blaming humanism for the “decline” of “Western thought and culture.”
Let me give you a sense of these films: in them, Schaeffer tries to appear self-assured yet grave, sporting a white goatee with longish hair cut precisely to land just above his chin. Imagine the face from the cover of a Burl Ives Christmas album nestled into a cream-colored turtleneck, deadly serious as he proclaims from the window of a Florentine building that the “cry” of humanism was “I can do what I will, just give me until tomorrow!” Renaissance humanists like Michelangelo start to look like self-obsessed procrastinators who are smart enough to see the impending failure of their misguided project. According to Schaeffer and his fans – like Bachmann – we live in the shadow of that “failure.”
After discovering how the Renaissance fits in Bachmann’s warped sense of history, I started to think about the consequences of the stories we tell about humanism, anti-humanism, and post-humanism. When a possible candidate for the US presidency is inspired by a bizarro-world “post-humanist” (or maybe “pre-humanist”?) agenda that proposes to clean up after humanism’s failure, the people who study the Renaissance – especially those of us who are excited by some of the movements, like animal studies, that take place under a post-humanist banner – have some some work ahead of us. We have stories to tell and some fact-checking to do.
Bachmann's campaign is concerning for a lot of reasons, but these "little" mistakes about history set me on edge. At UC Santa Cruz, my academic home, Donna Haraway likes to remind people that facts are “precious and fragile things.” It takes care and work to make them and to protect them. (On the topic of facts: the website PolitiFact.com has reviewed thirty of Bachmann’s recent statements and found only one of them to be “true.” Twenty of them were completely “false.”)
I’ll revisit issues of humanism and post-humanism after October 5, when The Center for Cultural Studies at UCSC will host Juliana Schiesari, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at UC Davis. She’s been working on some exciting post-humanist/animal studies projects and she will give a talk titled “Rethinking Humanism: Horses, Honor and Virtue in the Italian Renaissance” that I’m looking forward to attending.