Interview with Jeremy Gilbert: Humanities and Solidarities

Published January 30, 2020.

You are visiting Brown University at a very troubled time for both politics and the academic humanities. Do you see these things as connected?

Of course! — although in both cases I would say that the current situation has been a long time coming. I think that both liberal democracy and the academic humanities have been in some kind of crisis since the 1970s, and in analogous and interconnected ways. Since that time, the humanities have struggled to retain their legitimacy and their sense of a public mission in the face of two distinct challenges.

One of those challenges has taken the form of legitimate demands from various social groups to have their experiences represented and valorized by institutions and disciplines that once largely ignored them. The other has been the triumph of an unrestrained consumer culture that places no value on any form of knowledge that cannot be shown to be immediately profitable and commodifiable.

I think we can say that humanities scholars at institutions like Brown, and indeed my home institution (the University of East London, which was once a pioneering center for working-class history, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Studies) have risen to the first challenge very well, although as soon as one starts to admit ideas like feminism and anti-racism into the humanities, then the distinction between humanities and “social sciences” starts to break down.

The other challenge is that of preserving intellectual freedom in a culture that is increasingly informed by the idea that profit and capitalist utility are the only legitimate goals of any endeavor whatsoever. In the face of that challenge, a comparatively wealthy institution like Brown can to some extent use its material resources to protect itself and its intellectual freedom, which can only be a good thing. But, for example, at UEL which was created and has always existed to create educational opportunities for the least advantaged segments of society, all humanities programs have officially been closed and will no longer exist after this year. The future for the humanities there and at many comparable institutions in the UK and the US is not merely bleak: it has been cancelled.

The humanities have always required one of two things: the patronage of powerful individuals and institutions, or a democratic polity willing to protect both free thought and the heritage of our species.

The idea of the humanities — and “the humanities” as an ideal — has always faced in two directions, I think. On the one hand, we have the idea of the humanities as the repository of received culture and of values and ideas inherited from the past. On the other hand, the humanities have always been the domain of inquiry and scholarship wherein the most experimental and critical approaches to that received culture, and the society that has produced it, could be explored.

However, for either of these functions to be carried out, the humanities have always required one of two things: the patronage of powerful individuals and institutions, or a democratic polity willing to protect both free thought and the heritage of our species. But in an age of unrestrained hyper-capitalism, powerful institutions and individuals mostly have little interest in preserving those conditions, while the ability of democratic institutions to maintain them (or even to maintain the most minimal conditions for civilized life) is progressively weakening.

What do you see as the most important perspective that the humanities can bring to politics?

This is a very obvious answer, I know, but: a historical perspective and a critical perspective. It’s incredibly important for anyone engaged in any kind of political activity to understand their own historical context in its precise specificity, and in relation to what has gone before. Politics, as the cliché goes, is the art of the possible. It’s hard to judge what’s possible and to act accordingly without reference to past experience and without an understanding of the specific limitations and opportunities of the present moment.

On the other hand, the sheer speculative freedom that the humanities encourage (that they demand, even) is crucial to any kind of politics that wants to think beyond the limits of the present and the immediate past. It’s another cliché, and a romantic one, but without imagination there is no possibility of progress, and part of the role of the humanities is to cultivate the imagination.

You are teaching a course on Solidarities this semester. Why this topic in the current moment?

In 2020, we’re living with the consequences of four decades of neoliberalism: a 40-year assault on the very idea of humans as social animals, embedded in a material environment with which they are interdependent. Most attempts to think about alternatives to this corrosive ideology and its individualistic tendencies have referred to the value of ideas like “community”; but I think solidarity is a more fundamental political concept. There is no community without solidarity, but it is also possible to practice solidarity with people (and even, I would say, with non-humans) with whom one does not share a community or any kind of collective identity.

The sheer speculative freedom that the humanities encourage (that they demand, even) is crucial to any kind of politics that wants to think beyond the limits of the present and the immediate past.

Solidarity proceeds not from an ethical injunction but from an immediate recognition of shared interests. Today, almost everyone on the planet has an immediate shared interest in the dramatic reduction of carbon emissions and the termination of the socio-economic system that perpetuates them, irrespective of what particular groups they belong to or places they live in or come from. If we don’t find ways to express that shared interest then we are all doomed. So ideas and practice of solidarity take on an immediate salience.

At the same time, I’m interested in the way ideas of solidarity play out within different traditions and political movements (anti-racist movements, workers’ movements, movements for women’s liberation and for various forms of sexual freedom), while always resonating between those different traditions. In practice, I find that solidarity is a useful idea for thinking through issues of power and difference as they are actually lived.

Film and writing are an important component of your syllabus. How does fiction help you to think politically?

Again it’s a slightly banal and sentimental answer, but I think that all fiction — especially good fiction — stimulates the imagination while eliciting empathy (I know, I know, that sounds like something from an English scholar of the 1930s…). But this combination of imagination and empathy — which is an affect always closely related to the experience or possibility of solidarity — inheres in any form of progressive politics whatsoever.

A slightly more complex answer would be to say that any kind of radical, progressive, or democratic thought today is working against both the 400-year-old tradition of Western individualism and its more recent, intense iteration as manifest in neoliberal culture. This tradition more or less assumes that human beings are autonomous monads whose interior lives are fundamentally private and inaccessible to each other. I think that all expressive culture — not only fiction but also art, and above all music — reveals the mythic and obfuscatory nature of that ideology. To put it crudely: expressive art only works to the extent that our ideas, experiences, and affective states are shareable. The experience of solidarity is precisely a certain experience of sharing (the word “solidarity” derives from a French term referring to the pooling of resources and risks). So fiction plays a crucial role in cultivating possibilities for solidarity and even real relations of solidarity. It does for me, anyway: I think!

That’s answering the question specifically with reference to the idea of solidarity. But if I were to try to enumerate all of the ways in which fiction helps me to think politically… well, we’d be here all day…

You are co-organizing a conference, Capitalism and the Human, at Brown in April. Can you tell us what issues and questions you are hoping will be addressed by speakers at the conference?

The idea for the conference was sparked by the observation that a range of different writers and commentators over the past couple of years had called for a “return” to some kind of “humanism,” in the face of the threats to human life, consciousness, and autonomy posed by environmental crisis (itself a direct consequence of uncontrolled carbon capitalism), and by the extraordinary technological power now in the hands of a tiny economic elite.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the question of the human because I feel genuinely undecided as to whether this is a useful approach, or whether it’s the traditions of “anti-humanism” or “post-humanism” which retain greater critical purchase (or even if there is really a difference between them).

For example, as some of my answers above presumably make obvious, I’m very interested in the fact of human sociality. And yet this is an issue that can be thought of in either of these different ways. On the one hand, sociality is clearly not a uniquely human trait, and one of the most powerful resources for contemporary radical thought is that tradition of ethology, biology, and evolutionary history that stresses the importance of cooperation for the success of almost all species. From this perspective, to think about our sociality is to think about our bio-social natures as always more and less than “human.” On the other hand, there is something unique about humans, if only that our dependence on parents and other elders lasts for so much longer than in even the most intelligent of the other mammals. And the question of what, if anything, makes humans unique among animals is arguably the oldest question of Western philosophy (at least of political philosophy).

As we can see, then, the question of capitalism and the human is one that touches on the most immediate political and economic concerns as well as the most abstract and ancient philosophical issues. So generally, we’re hoping that the speakers will address all and any of these themes, and any others that they see as relevant to the questions. Mostly, we’ve posed the question of “capitalism and the human” precisely because we don’t know the answer!

Jeremy Gilbert is Professor of Cultural and Political Theory at the University of East London. As a Visiting Professor of the Humanities at the Cogut Institute this Spring 2020, he teaches an undergraduate and graduate level course on “Solidarities.” His books Twenty-First Century Socialism (Polity) and Hegemony Now: Power in the Twenty-First Century (Verso, co-authored with Alex Williams) will both appear in 2020. He writes regularly for the British press and for think tanks, is routinely engaged in debates and discussion on Labour Party policy and strategy, and hosts the popular #ACFM podcast on Novara Media. He is also an active DJ and dance-party organizer. More at https://www.jeremygilbert.org/