You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.
My title echoes Franz Kafka’s haunting story entitled “A Report to an Academy.” Kafka’s narrator—an ape who has learned to talk—is giving a report to “Exalted Gentlemen” in an academy. As a former ape, he has something shocking to tell those academics about the differences between apes and humans.
My aims are less shocking. I am merely a literature professor who has retired, not an ape who has learned to speak. But like Kafka’s ape, I seek to bring to the academy’s attention a few realities it is being urged to misrecognize. The “you” I address in my report are current undergraduates at liberal arts colleges. Like Kafka’s report, mine wonders if what passes for pedagogical light at such places is not shot through with darkness. Do current curricular priorities ignore something of great importance? To pursue this question, I begin with the words of the U.S. Department of Education.
“In an ever-changing, increasingly complex world,” that department writes, “it’s more important than ever that our nation’s youth are prepared to bring knowledge and skills to solve problems, make sense of information, and know how to gather and evaluate evidence to make decisions.” This sentence is the opening salvo of an online statement about the importance of STEM courses—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—in the curriculum. “Subjectivity,” in this scheme of priorities, takes a back seat. Indeed, subjectivity seems to be suspect territory, as is suggested by Wikipedia’s definition of the term: “a subject’s personal perspective, feelings, beliefs, desires or discovery, as opposed to those made from an independent, objective point of view.”
You members of the academy hear these priorities often. You may well use them to guide your curricular choices and prepare for the serious business of postcollegiate life that lies ahead. “Subjectivity” may be delightful—it is at any rate unavoidable—but you are probably not at college to indulge it. Your parents are not spending a fortune for you to immerse yourself in literature or languages or philosophy or art or music or religion. You are at college, rather, to identify and pursue your objectives: those real things you plan to achieve, not those slippery things that remain open to interpretation, besmirched by feelings and desires.
What’s wrong with this educational picture? A great deal, I want to claim. Let me start by putting you further into this picture. In truth, no “feelings, beliefs, desires” can be assessed “from an independent, objective point of view.” As Friedrich Nietzsche recognized over a century ago, all seeing is perspectival. It comes from somewhere: that’s what makes it both interested (angled, open to critique) and interesting (provocative: what you see from a particular locus). Point of view is by definition not “objective”; it is a point of view. We are always tacitly in the picture of the world we carry into our claims and proposals. Nonsubjective learning is of course essential—yes, get STEM, get lots of it—but that learning remains unavoidably at your disposal, to be well used or ill used by you. Objects kill and maim in war, but it takes subjects to create, legitimize and unleash these objects. Education begins and ends with the subject. Its inalienable aim is to inform and widen your subjectivity. It does this in order to promote your greater understanding of the larger world that all human subjects inhabit. Liberal arts colleges—higher education institutions in general—should worry about subjectivity being put on a curricular back burner.
To equate subjectivity with irresponsibility—to fantasize some human arena where subjectivity gets happily bypassed—is to dream of impossibilities. The realm of mortal, erring subjects is the space where the social world gets made and remade. And more, the ethical commitment of those who make and remake it is grounded in their own mortality. As Jacques Derrida puts it, “It is from the site of death as the place of my irreplaceability, that is, of my singularity, that I feel called to responsibility. In this sense only a mortal can be responsible.” Only a mortal can be responsible: ethics is the task of living subjects, not of abstract systems that are neither alive nor dead. The mission of the academy is only in part to promote a STEM education: it is, at least as much, to enlarge the subjective resources of all the mortal subjects lucky enough to attend. Yes, though most of you are hardly 21, you’re mortal, too—here for a limited amount of time. College should make you wiser, more self-aware and aware of others in their similarity and difference, and better prepared to use, responsibly, your allotment of time.
With this as preamble, I’d like to explore some of the ways that literature opens up crucial, yet disturbing, subjective territory that the STEM enterprise ignores. I’ll be talking about proclivities of the mind and of the body: how the mind’s understanding is affected by communal (or tribal) orientations, as well as how the mind’s commerce with the body is mediated—affected by bodily events that may throw it off-kilter and deposit it in an unmappable space that we call “the uncanny.” (This is the territory of which Kafka writes.) Finally I’ll broach the mystery of human identity itself: how we move through space and time exposed to accident and surprise, and how we are unpredictably changed by these when they occur. (This is the territory of most great literature: my examples will come from Sophocles and Shakespeare.) By contrast, STEM has little interest in “the tribe,” in “the uncanny,” in language’s undeclared allegiances, or—ultimately—in the human subject as such. For STEM, mysteries of the human subject get replaced by problems engaged by the human subject, and these are open to solutions.
The subject carrying out STEM projects poses questions, but is not in question. The subject carrying out STEM projects is an un-self-conscious Cartesian problem-solver, mapmaker, information gatherer, evidence weigher—but not a mystery. STEM centers not on the problematic of the subject doing the work but on the value of the work being done. The gaze of STEM is outward focused: there’s a world out there endlessly in need of greater understanding, mapping, mastery.
By contrast, I seek to shed a little light on the intricacy of human beings themselves. Since all of us are human beings, it may behoove us to pay attention. I begin by examining fault lines—moments of exposure or stress—in the mind-body bonding. For STEM, such fault lines are either nonexistent or of little moment. The STEM subject assumes a functional relation between mind and body: the commanding mind gives rational orders; the subservient body carries them out. That’s how research gets done! But each of you probably has experienced moments—of sickness or confusion or dread—when this command structure falters: the body that is “ours” ceases to act like “us.” We normally think that nothing could be more immediate than our own body. In fact, we usually feel that we are our bodies. But sometimes our body becomes mysterious, unforthcoming, no longer the high-functioning servant of our will. In such moments we stumble upon the uncanny. No STEM course will shed much light on the uncanny, but literature courses will.
I am far from dismissing functional resource: it is perhaps our signature achievement. The existential psychologist Rollo May proposed a basic linkage between subjectivity itself and functional resource: “‘I’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I can,’” May insisted. The I cannot sustain itself without at least a remnant of resourcefulness, of I can. We access our own identities by virtue of an abiding bodily canniness, a can-do-ness, however straitened it may be. The repertory of embodied moves we can make—a repertory that we experience as given, ours beyond recall—serves as virtually our birthright. It underwrites our deepest intuition of identity. Yet life—like literature but unlike STEM—has its uncanny moments when this birthright fractures. At such times, traffic between body and mind becomes strange.
Some years ago, one of my colleagues, George—in the French department—was diagnosed with lung cancer. The cancer had metastasized before it was detected; he had little time left to live. A mutual friend and colleague, Bob (also in the French department), joined me in visiting George at the nearby hospital; he was undergoing intensive late-stage cancer treatment. He looked gaunt and spent when we entered his room; the procedures he was undergoing inflicted great pain. At a certain moment in our difficult conversation, he looked at me, smiled tightly and said, “It’s weird. There’s no me anymore.” He went on to explain that the racking pain inflicted by both the disease and its treatment had unraveled his sense of identity. He had become, at this last stage of his life, the object of a series of invasions, each overriding any power on his part to resist. Reduced to being a mere receptacle for these inhuman assaults, he no longer recognized himself as one-who-can, as George.
Then, somehow, Bob managed to engage George in desultory shop talk. They began to recall a professional experience shared years earlier, when they were interviewing a candidate for a position in 18th-century literature. What I still remember—it is now years since George’s death—was a particular sentence George spoke (in French): “Bob, tu te rappelles, ce dix-huitièmiste, comment il s’appelait?” (“Bob, you remember, that 18th-century specialist, what was his name?”) I quote the French, because “dix-huitièmiste” (specialist in 18th-century literature) is a bit of a boutique word even for French ears. George spoke normally, his focus clear, his eyes alert, looking at Bob and awaiting a response. The interview that had taken place years earlier was once more alive inside George’s mind, and it was giving pleasure on being revisited.
“I” is the “I” of “I can.” George had for a moment repossessed himself as George-who-can. His recovery of subjective identity lasted only as long as he was able to relive an earlier vignette in which his agency, Bob’s and that of the 18th-century specialist had all briefly operated in tandem. (The interviewee hadn’t been offered the job, and neither George nor Bob ever did come up with his name.) A couple of minutes later, a nurse entered, wheeling in a slew of drugs she needed to administer. George’s face became drawn and gaunt once more; it was time for us to leave; he was no longer George. He died two weeks later.
Our bodies: on the one hand, ours alone (no one else, as Derrida reminds us, can die our death for us). On the other hand, they’re our bodies only by way of an intricate subjective process that we rarely take into account. Here is the novelist Marcel Proust on our mind’s attempt to understand another person:
A real person, profoundly as we may sympathize with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either.
This passage occurs about 100 pages into Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time, and whenever I taught Proust to undergraduates, I never failed to emphasize it. My insistence was always surprising to my students. They tended to glide over the passage, unruffled by its claims. Yet its central assertion is quietly devastating: that we have no unmediated contact with embodied others. Our senses do indeed register their physical presence—we straight away see, hear, smell or touch them—but we access them only by way of the cluster of ideas we carry inside and draw on to interpret those sense impressions. This subjective, interpretive frame does the heavy lifting. It transforms the brute act of sensing bodies into the human one of reading persons. Not only, Proust goes on to claim, do we access others in this indirect fashion. We move through the same kind of subjective mediation when accessing ourselves.
This latter claim defies common sense, and I long remained dubious (surely he’s exaggerating, I thought). Then a crisis occurred in my life, many years ago yet still vivid. I was an assistant professor at the time, and I had become ill. A low-grade fever had settled in, accompanied by sharp pains pervasively located in my chest. My doctor was bewildered. My distress did not signal heart problems, so all he could do was throw aspirin (two at a time, four times a day) at it. Perhaps something was swollen and would shrink back to normal size. But neither the pain nor the fever diminished. So, on a Wednesday afternoon (several weeks into my undiagnosed illness), I drove to an orthopedic specialist’s office several miles away, where I waited for hours to get my chest X-rayed. Finally the X-rays were taken, and the radiologist—rather than explaining matters—ordered me to go to my regular doctor immediately, X-rays (and report) in hand. It was by then well past 6 p.m.; I had two classes to teach the next day. But I reluctantly did as instructed. My doctor—luckily still in his office that late—looked at the X-rays and the report, then told me to go to the nearest hospital emergency room that night. It seems I was having an attack of pulmonary embolism. I had never heard of this disease, and I remonstrated strongly. I didn’t feel that bad—not worse than I had for some time now. I said I’d go to the hospital on Friday. To which he responded (in more or less these words), “Pulmonary embolism is like a cluster of tiny bombs inside your lung; if any of them go off, you could die; you need to get to the ER as soon as possible.” On hearing this I felt nothing—not frightened, no feeling at all. I abstractly understood the words that had been said, but, emotionally, it was as if they had been said to someone else. I drove home calmly, and as I got out of the car in our driveway, my wife came running out toward me. She knew where I had been, and it was very late to be getting home. I took one look at her panic-stricken eyes and burst into tears. That was the moment—the first moment—when I knew I might die that night.
Proustian? Yes. The moment of the brute event and the moment of its subjective registering are separated in time. (Proust’s most harrowing instance of this is the death of the narrator’s grandmother—a death that the boy is bodily present at, but one whose emotional weight it will take him another two years to grasp and make his own.) In the subjective idea I still had of myself, while driving home that night with the bad news, I was not yet threatened. But in the terrified eyes of my wife, I suddenly saw myself in mortal danger. We read even ourselves through the mirror of others; that is how feeling and thinking and identity come into play. Until this subjective activity occurs, we remain blank carriers (rather than conscious sufferers) of the misfortune that has come upon us.
That personal vignette may join the one about George in suggesting how vexed can be the relation between our own physical body and our subjective grasp of it. Not merely that an unfamiliar, life-threatening illness had made its way into me, but that I was incapable of registering what was happening even after being told—until the moment when seeing my wife’s distress released a kindred distress in me: it was intersubjective to the hilt. My menaced body, only then, became subjectively conceptualized, became mine. This strange trajectory seems to have been something Proust already knew. Literature’s uncanny moments often zero in on how our bodies escape our ownership of them—how we are our bodies, yet not the same as our bodies. The something else that intervenes and seems to be in control is our subjectivity.
Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” opens on Gregor Samsa having just awakened, after a night of fitful dreams, to find himself turned into a gigantic insect. He is incapable of owning this transformation, of probing into how or why it happened. The problem he can access is simpler—a STEM problem of functionality, of something to be solved. Given that he is now lying on his (exoskeletal, insect) back on his bed in his locked bedroom, how will he manage to get out of bed, open the door and make it to the office without being later than he already is? After rocking awkwardly from side to side (insects don’t sleep on their backs), he succeeds in stumbling out of the bed. Time now to open the locked bedroom door:
Slowly Gregor pushed the chair toward the door, then let go of it, caught hold of the door for support—the soles at the end of his little legs were somewhat sticky—and rested against it for a moment after his efforts. Then he set himself to turning the key in the lock with his mouth. It seemed, unhappily, that he hadn’t really any teeth—what could he grip the key with?—but on the other hand his jaws were certainly very strong; with their help he did manage to set the key in motion, heedless of the fact that he was undoubtedly damaging them somewhere, since a brown fluid issued from his mouth, flowed over the key and dripped on the floor.
Everything here seethes with alienation; no creature in that body is equipped to achieve these things. Gregor cannot walk upright. Perhaps the most resonant moment of the story occurs a few pages later, when he falls onto his squirming little legs, feels immediate relief and starts to scurry about his bedroom. He thus undoes—he repeats in reverse—the foundational story of Homo sapiens: that fateful moment when the infant first stands up, exiting from the world of horizontal animality and entering the one of vertical (functional) humanity. Every human-designed feature of Gregor’s habitation—the bed, the door, the key in its lock—gets transformed into dimensions of his animal imprisonment. His body is no longer his, a fact emphasized by his incapacity to manage all those quivering legs, no less than by the “brown fluid” issuing from the wound to his mouth. Brown: it no longer answers to the color of his own blood.
What possible interest could a STEM curriculum have in the work of Kafka? Kafka takes us somewhere foreign to the STEM enterprise of functional can-do: into a fantasy of one’s own body becoming—suddenly, inexplicably—the body of an enormous insect. So why would Kafka want us to go there? There are many answers to this question, and they are all outside the realm of STEM concerns. One answer would center on how poor Gregor never subjectively catches up to the drama of his body’s metamorphosis. (I at least grasped my own dilemma a half hour after I was told.) All readers of Kafka’s story register the appalling physical transformation that has taken place, but the quieter subjective drama is no less disturbing: Gregor cannot get his mind around what has happened to him. A second answer follows from this first one: he cannot get his mind around what has happened to him because his mind is not his anyway. The company he works for and the family he supports are the owners of his mind: they direct its functioning. Their priorities (will he get to work on time? Will his parents continue to recognize his fidelity?) come before his own, keep him from having priorities of his own. And this second answer raises some scary questions: How do our minds get formed? What exterior institutions—commercial, economic, governmental, political, religious, familial—are in the business of training our subjectivity so powerfully that we become incapable of acknowledging what the mirror plainly shows to be there?
Kafka’s work, it turns out, sheds light on how preposterous assessments may follow, not so much from avoiding the facts as from selecting a particular subset of them, a subset skewed as much as required in order to keep intact our prior subjective training, our tribal alignments. Gregor’s prior training allows him to “see” only his job at risk, his family perplexed. He cannot “see” his own bodily transformation, cannot “see” it as a revelation about him. Kafka’s story lets us grasp how subjectively skewed the act of seeing and assessing can be. How much more is at stake than just “recognizing the facts.” If you find this claim exaggerated, just consider those folks in South Dakota who, not long ago, rushed to the hospital because they were dying of COVID, yet desperately demanding what was killing them: it couldn’t be COVID—COVID was a left-wing hoax.
“A cage went in search of a bird,” Kafka wrote, an aphorism that becomes more chilling the longer one broods on it. If you are a cage—if you’ve come to identify yourself as one and to act accordingly—then, “naturally,” what you’re in search of is a bird that needs enclosing. Your purpose is to find birds; your training informs you they need to be enclosed. It takes a STEM set of skills to build the best cages. America builds more and larger ones than most other countries, and our ex-president recently bragged about how “well-run and clean” the ones for children at the Mexican border are. STEM knowhow gets those cages built, but a subjective mind-set is needed to decide which birds belong in them. Indeed, in the 1940s, the Nazis built even better and more intricate ones. Almost 20 years after Kafka’s death, his three sisters ended up in the vast cages that were Auschwitz and Chelmno, where they were gassed to death. Their fate echoes Gregor’s: he dies as a monstrous insect, while they were condemned as vermin in need of extermination.
We arrive at a social drama in which ideological blinders—trained subjective leanings—start to resemble Gregor Samsa’s incapacity to recognize what is staring him in the face. The motor driving Gregor’s dysfunctional take on his world means little within a STEM realm of concerns, but it becomes radioactive with meaning if we recognize in it a monstrous version of the subjective lenses that we wear in order to see our world at all. We wear these lenses, but we did not invent them. They testify to larger allegiances and animosities we’ve drawn on—often unthinkingly—to become who we are. As Nietzsche argues, no form of seeing is objective. We are, willy-nilly, shaped and shaping players in the picture of the world that we project out there, however much we might imagine it (and ourselves) to be objective and freestanding. Subjective allegiances run rife throughout every social situation.
What, you might ask, could Kafka tell us about why subjectivity matters? Leo Tolstoy or Toni Morrison, perhaps: they at least labor to get you to trust their representations, perhaps even to take heart from them. But what alternative to a STEM frame of priorities might Kafka offer? The answer I would propose is that his genius consists in getting us to recognize language as that deep social sea we spend our entire lives swimming in. In those many-peopled waters, none of us are perfect swimmers. The medium is murky rather than transparent; it is laden with presuppositions, seething with others’ judgments, tribal judgments. No narrative—no articulation of one’s stance toward things—is innocent or objective. Perhaps this is literature’s greatest gift: that it offers itself up not as truth but as fiction. Nietzsche again: “Plato vs. Homer: that is the complete, the genuine antagonism.” Plato would tell us what things essentially mean—the objective truth that his philosophy proclaims—while Homer would show us what things look like: the subjective take on the world that his epic expresses. As fiction, literature generates versions of the real that ask not for belief but for consideration. They invite us to consider them imaginatively, for what they say and don’t say. Literature “knows” it comes from somewhere, that its culture’s values—interests, insights, anxieties—are lodged in the picture of the world it delineates. Literature “knows” that interested and interesting are inseparable.
Every important decision that you will make in your life—like the ones you make in choosing your college—draws on subjective criteria. What size and makeup of the college’s student body and faculty appeal to you? What disciplines interest you, stimulate your most creative thinking and feeling? And later: What work do you want to undertake once you leave here? Where do you want to live? With whom (if anyone) do you want to live? How do you make your 20s serve as a productive proving ground for who you’ll end up becoming? (How do you do this without deforming your 20s—your 20s, after all!—into a mere launching pad for what will come later?) These questions are both personal and social to the hilt—they are interested and interesting. Few questions you confront at this stage of your life count more than these, yet none of them submits to an objective answer. A focus on literature is often faulted as narcissistic and self-indulgent, but the more important truth is the opposite. Literature is where we take the human measure of pervasive social values and alignments, as these throb inside imagined characters encountering each other and themselves for good or ill, often for both.
If you grant that perhaps the two most resonant plays written in the West over the past 2,500 years are Oedipus Rex and Hamlet, you might note that both center on something far from problem-solving. Of course, you could say that Oedipus is a proto-STEM figure: he does, after all, solve the riddle of the Sphinx. Yes, but the play is after something darker than Oedipus’s bright canniness: it insists on our (and his) coming to recognize, beneath all his insight, his life-altering self-blindness. Oedipus the problem-solver lives out, all unknowing, a drama of impotence and power and impotence again—a drama actually encoded in the riddle of the Sphinx that he has solved yet not grasped. This is the riddle of life’s radical unpredictability in time: the undeveloped child crawling on four legs, the strong grown man standing on two legs, the fragile old man limping on three legs (his two plus a cane). Oedipus himself is all of these, at different times, each identity contradicting the others. To see in him only the STEM genius—the two-legged riddle solver—is to see him wrong. Oedipus is no less the cast-out infant who later comes upon and kills a man he does not know to be his father (and then marries that man’s widow without knowing her to be his mother). Later yet, blinding himself as a self-judgment for his appalling misdeeds, he becomes the cane-enabled old man at Colonus. The creature that walks on four feet in the morning and two in the afternoon and three at night—like the Danish prince who has a new question for every answer he receives, a question that undoes the authority of the answer he has just received—is finally a figure of mystery. Neither hero has the key to the enigmas he embodies; neither is finally a problem-solver. Both reward all the attention we can bring to bear on them, for they shed light—at once radiant and unbearable—on the risks of being subjectively alive. You won’t learn much about either in the world of STEM.
I close by returning to Kafka. In his “Report to an Academy,” Kafka’s ape appeals as a figure of accomplishment. At least he is (like Oedipus in his problem-solving phase) standing on two feet. But Kafka—no less than Sophocles or Shakespeare—shows that the solver of solvable problems is, even more deeply, the subject of unsolvable situations. An ape who has struggled to “become” human implies something more disturbing than anything that those “Exalted Gentlemen” in the academy would dream of considering. That is, the ape lives out, with a larger-than-life literalness, the drama that we humans struggle with throughout our lives: how to reconcile our inherited animal bodies with our mind’s noblest aspirations.
Yes, my dear members of an academy, your capacities for STEM-centered achievement are invaluable—you would likely not be admitted here without already excelling in those subjects—but do not imagine that you are therefore the same as those capacities. Do not ignore that you carry—each of you—unsolvable mysteries of self into the world you inhabit. Do not ignore that you are mortal subjects immersed in ideological schemas you may largely take for granted—and that may largely take you for granted as well. The STEM solver of problems deserves every accolade he or she receives, but that same solver once walked on four legs and may well end on three. You are more plural—more interesting and interested—than you are likely to grasp. And you are neither innocent nor objective—never were, never will be. A recognition now and then of Kafka’s ape and gigantic insect can be a salutary reminder. It might even constitute a necessary counterpart to Rollo May’s “‘I’ is the ‘I’ of ‘I can.’” Yes, you can, but unless you leaven what you can with a creaturely awareness of what you cannot, you will never solve whatever version of the riddle of the Sphinx is coming your way. A return to the humanities might help you glimpse that you are never a mere bystander—that you have skin in every game you play. Such recognitions guarantee neither success nor happiness; they make no promises about avoiding failure or heartache. But without reclaiming subjectivity (its influence on all that you and others do), you will have missed an opportunity to catch up to—and inhabit more richly—the precious and passing life that is yours.