The humanities are vital for humanity 1

February 21, 2008

The question of the "crisis" in the humanities raised in the cover story and the leader ("Soul searching"; "Blasting the rust off the canon", 14 February) gave a familiar name to those supposedly "newfangled" trends in the humanities that, we are told, bring about far-reaching "reputational wreckage", plying an unfathomably obscure nihilism that, having at first prompted "outrage", now invites "plain lack of interest" and total boredom. As ever, the name is deconstruction.

For many years, right up to his death, Derrida wrote tirelessly on compelling and urgent topics: globalisation, Europe, terrorism, asylum, Israel, religion, and international law and politics, opening debates about the possibility of a public sphere, intellectual commitment and new sorts of politics today.

Going back to an earlier time, he took a leading, activist role in defending the French education system, and philosophy in particular, against aggressive government reform, and involved himself in counter-institutional initiatives aimed at powerfully renewing the university and the humanities. For many readers of Derrida, the ethical engagement called for by literature provides a possible way out of English becoming merely a "poor handmaiden" to sociology or history, as Ronan McDonald puts it, and in fact makes more urgent the call for good, formidably deciphering reading of the entire cultural field.

Certainly some of Derrida's writings are difficult. It would be hard to name one writer throughout the centuries making a significant and lasting contribution to the humanities' disciplines (or any other) who did not challenge us to think and read harder, stretching the comfortable limits of what we assume we already know and recognise. But Derrida wrote many texts and gave innumerable interviews that provide fine examples of clear and incisive writing. Here was certainly an eye on a broader, complexly composed audience.

I urge all those in the humanities, rather than addressing the "crisis" by reverting to boring name-calling and mud-slinging, to show enough strength to return to some of the critical texts that are undoubtedly a part of our tradition, and to read them with an eye on renewing the fundamental claim of the humanities.

Simon Morgan Wortham, Professor of English, University of Portsmouth

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