Liberal arts in the Anthropocene

I was asked to write something about the liberal arts, to join a conversation that was started because it seems we lack a shared sense here at the College of what it means to be where we are, and to devote ourselves to the work we are doing together. My colleagues Peter Low and Lee Park have written already in the Record about the trends at Williams that make this inquiry pressing, and have done a beautiful job of historicizing the various ways that the liberal arts have been thought as, among other things, an ethics, a commitment to radical forms of freedom (“Thinking liberally,” Sept. 17, 2014). I would like to write with similar clarity, but have been struggling with knowing what I can say. It’s clear enough that the crisis in the liberal arts is tied to the rise of neoliberalism and an increasingly rapacious capitalism that seeks to instrumentalize and monetize every gesture, every thought and every impulse we have as human beings. It seems to me that one of the most important questions is therefore what the role of the liberal arts education might be in resisting its seemingly unstoppable ascent, creating a space where we imagine ourselves for once as neither consumers nor products. As a nonprofit institution, the College has the incredible privilege of being responsible to the public good, rather than to the profit of private shareholders. The idealism with which I approach the question of our purpose seems to me therefore a necessary aspect of the liberal arts education: at best, I think, the College offers us a unique opportunity to look deeply, in community, across disciplines, at what we face.

I’ve been at Williams only a year, and yet already have a sense of the vibrancy, dedication and purpose shared by many of us, and yet the rhetoric of exceptionalism the uninterrogated insistence that we are the very best that dominates our landscape threatens to drown out competing articulations of why we are here. Individually, of course, most Williams grads stand to benefit from the status quo, and so to argue against the instrumentalization of knowledge in this context feels a bit like force-feeding a toddler. Moreover, because the humanities and the arts my domain as a poet and professor of English fare especially poorly under such systems of capitalist valuation, it’s hard not to take a defensive position. I keep reminding myself of what Bard College’s President Leon Botstein writes in Jefferson’s Children, that “the … arts are not a luxury in a free and democratic society” but “symptoms of its existence.” Still, it’s difficult to put poetry’s function into words: as W.H. Auden wrote in 1939, on the outbreak of WWII, “poetry makes nothing happen, … survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper,” as “A way of happening, a mouth.”

It’s early still, 4:30 in the morning, and I have pulled myself out of bed because I promised to finish this piece some time ago. Especially in the early hours, as my family and students and neighbors sleep in their dark rooms, I worry about the world: I think of this as keeping vigil, and it seems to me a proper task for a poet. We live in an epoch recently renamed the Anthropocene, a name that reflects the fact that human beings have permanently altered the planet; the threat posed by climate change has been known, and largely ignored, since I was in college and the current graduating class was in diapers. Our collective loss is already immeasurable, and yet this and other forms of devastation stemming from war, the inequalities of globalism, the continued exploitation of the body and labor of human beings less fortunate than we are often seem secondary concerns. The fact that we, as a College, as individuals, may well profit from the suffering of other species and people seems appalling to me. The solution is in part to shift drastically what we value to know the hidden costs of our appetites, and to see other beings as mattering as much as we do. This expansion of sympathy is of course central to what we teach in the humanities, and would, in its most radical form, necessarily spark us to reevaluate what makes an exceptional life.

On such mornings, I look out the window, toward the tall pines where the vultures nest, knowing they are there unseen, their lives unknown to me. Between the light of my laptop and the safety light on at Dodd, there’s nothing to see. Light is dangerous in this way; it shrinks the expansiveness of darkness, distracts us from what we don’t know. I try to think what to write next, fish around for a quotation, and my son calls out in his sleep: Did I get it? His voice is otherworldly, and I think of that dark world, the dreamlife of four-year-olds, about which I have forgotten all I once knew. What I don’t know could fill a book: this was my father’s favorite refrain. When we woke, he would ask us what we’d dreamt; it was something he’d got in college, from a professor’s lecture on the traditions around dream in other cultures. I think maybe that practice, of ferrying the dream cargo between the worlds of sleep and waking, was my occupational training as a poet; we are, after all, makers of metaphor, which comes from the same Latin root as “to ferry” (ferre, to bear), “metaphor,” (to bear across).

Bear with me. Everything comes from somewhere, and every one of us is made and makes our way through the world. Where we go, and what we carry with us, varies. In the early 1950s, a French sociologist tracked a young woman through her year, and found that her movements made “a small triangle with no significant deviations, the three apexes of which [were] the School of Political Sciences, her residence and that of her piano teacher.” The critic Guy Debord expressed “outrage at the fact that anyone’s life can be so pathetically limited;” it was to counter such constraint that he championed what he called the dérive, or deviation, in which “one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” For Debord, this form of drifting was not only a corrective to the narrowness of the individual. It also gave life to the creative spirit; the dérive, he imagined, was an essential form of resistance to the mechanization of everyday life under capitalism. Like poetry, it was a “way of happening,” a mode of moving through space and time that animated both, and helped us to know the world in new ways. In the last few weeks, as I thought about the College encouraging its students to explore more fully the liberal arts, I kept imagining our community en dérive, like a boat felicitously off-course, and likewise transformed by such intentional openness.

Jessica Fisher is a professor of English.