Blog Post


My approach to the set of fields known as the Humanities is rather different from that of most people I know.  I hesitate to assert the universal validity of my approach because it is, basically, a desire for everyone else to become more like me.  

The single most important principle, for me, is receptivity, which I define as an openness to hearing what the greatest products of the human intelligence are telling us, the capacity to respond to a large but not infinite number of works of art, music, literature,  philosophy.  I define intelligence in the largest possible sense, as the apprehension of the world through the senses and the intellect itself.  By "telling us" I don't mean any sort of reductionist idea of a paraphrasable message.  This is the quality that I try to cultivate in myself above all others, in my chosen profession.  I don't really care whether someone else agrees with me exactly on what counts as the greatest products of human culture.  In fact, I would argue that the person with with most inclusive sense of what that might entail would have the highest degree of receptivity.  I'm thinking of people like David Shapiro, John Cage or Federico García Lorca.  Receptivity is not indiscriminate or mindlessly eclectic.  In other words, it is not a claim to an openness that has not really been achieved, or an uncaring acceptance of everything.  In practice, no one individual will really achieve  receptivity except in a very limited sphere.  I often find myself closed off to anything new, unable to respond to things I am unaccustomed to. At other times the channels are marvelously open.  Imagine walking down the same corridor every day, and then one day suddenly a new door is open, one that you never saw before.     

Now it seems to me that the standard mentality in the humanities is to value two things:  the ability to make an argument that conforms to academic conventions, and the need for such an argument to have a "pay off" or alibi, in other words, a justification that appeals to something other than the inherent value of the products of the human intelligence.  Gerald Graff, for example, argues in the 2009 Profession  ("Why How We Read Trumps What  We Read"), that the value of texts about what we develop our arguments do not matter very much.  He develops a rather trivial argument about a trivial text (a text he views as trivial) in order to demonstrate this.  For me, all this shows is that the form of an academic argument is easy to replicate and parody.  Surely the value of the humanities lies in its "raw materials," not in our own academic formalisms.  The search for the alibi also shows a deep insecurity about the value of what we are doing.  More about that later, maybe.  For know I will only say that I hold the humanities in more esteem that the appeasement of other deities.   

In my own work I do develop arguments, of course.  I am not advocating a merely "appreciative" criticism, but one that makes substantive points about how and why these works matter.  Usually, a particular article I might write will use only a portion of my total response to the work itself, in the service of some narrower argument relevant for the occasion.  One thing I have been trying to do for years is to use more of what I know--maybe 20% instead of 5%.  This is the real challenge of the humanities:  if only a small percentage of our response actually makes it into print, it is no use pointing to the larger percentage of the iceberg that remains underwater.  There is no ready-made "translation" from receptivity to meaningful scholarly work.  Maybe some are deeply responsive and never bother to articulate what they've learned.  What the Humanist should do is visit these places and report back to the rest of us.  That in itself can be a great product of the human intelligence.  

 I should make it clear that I disagree, too, with approaches that advocate the "love of literature" in an anti-intellectual way.  To really love literature is to love how it rewrites your subjectivity, how it kicks your ass with its transformative power.  I don't really want a criticism that is less academic and more like the plain folks read, but a criticism that is up to the level of our potential receptivity to literature itself.  That might very well be a criticism that is more academic, more theoretical, rather than less so.  

Of course, I don't expect anyone to agree with me, because I distrust my own impulse to want to make other people think as I do.  Receptivity cannot be forced on others as a critical program.    



Jonathan Mayhew received his PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford University in 1988.  He was recently promoted to the rank of Professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas, where he has taught since 1996.  He is the author of many articles and four books, most recently Apocryphal Lorca:  Translation, Parody, Kitsch (U of Chicago P, 2009).