Blog Post

A Bombastic Book: "Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts"

Published in an open-access format by punctum books, Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, by L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Santa Barbara, is "part-scholarly monograph, part-poetic-activist desiring-assemblage" (xix). Edited by Eileen A. Joy, it includes companion essays by Donna Beth Ellard (Rice University), Ruth Evans (Saint Louis University), Joy (BABEL Working Group), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Daniel C. Remein (New York University), and Michael D. Snediker (University of Houston).

Coming from a very different set of academic issues in Brazil (a world attacked by quantitative-silly-parodies of the "developed nations-and-markets," but which also offers an energetic ambiance for Literature and the Arts), I'm still too foreign to US academia to comment on all the arguments and historical facts presented in this book. But what I can say is that Staying Alive, from its title on, is a refreshing—and radical—(also refreshing because radical) perspective on the "crises of the Humanities," an expression that remains as a knife over our heads (or, in Fradenburg's first sentence: "Today, all around the world, the future of the humanities stands on the edge of a knife") (1). Part of "university studies," it is a great companion for debates such as the ones commented on in Arcade's blogs by Roland Greene and David Palumbo-Liu, among others.

Besides, the book’s format coincides with its fresh spirit: each chapter by Fradenburg is echoed, rephrased and put forward by a series of commentators, following the musical form of prelude and fugues. Joy's prelude, for instance, as her name suggests, joyfully brings back the life and heart forces at stake and on stage at the Humanities, neglected or forgotten nowadays.

Put another way, desire and the sorts of passions and compulsions that lead to certain intensely ecstatic experiences are integral to the work of the academy, which often does not admit the importance of (disorganized) subjective life to its “proper objects” of study. (Joy ix)

As experts on medieval literature, Fradenburg and the co-authors show us how to fight old battles again, and they also offer us some classic armors to combat with jouissance the assault of technical utilitarian rhetoric, the majority of them depressing (i.e. offering no "cure" but contributing to killing the patient). Orlemanski, employing Thomas Pynchon's phrase, calls these combatants "the army of lovers,"—"naming those who would defend and support the humanities and fine arts, or fight for speculative thought and the study of the past"; and Joy sustains "the development of a certain institutional amour fou..." (56, xxvi). But the book is not at all an idealized version of the Humanities versus the Sciences, on the contrary, Fradenburg, who is also the director of a specialization in "Literature and the Mind," presents a comprehensive discussion on shared thoughts between neuroscience, evolutionary biology, biosemiotics, psychoanalysis and literary-historical analysis.

The following passages reminded me of a similar argumentation presented and developed in Joshua Landy's How to Do Things with Fictions (Oxford, 2012):

The humanities are important not only for the content that they convey but even more so for the techniques of living—the “life-skills”—they teach. ... The most important purpose of the humanities and fine arts is to refine the brain’s ability to do innumerable real-time things necessary for surviving and thriving: to perceive color keenly; hypothesize about the intentions and direction of moving shapes; listen with sharp ears for changes in tone, or the slightest rustle in the bushes; read faces and para-language; model fictions and possible futures; and understand, in however limited a fashion (the miracle is that we can do it at all), the wishes and intentions of other beings (see Gallese 2007). These are priceless abilities, and we need to refine them (now more than ever—but when have we not?), owing to the vulnerability of the lives of mortal creatures...Neuroscience is now establishing, however (at times) unintentionally, the importance of artistic and humanist training to mental functioning. But, as noted, these discoveries have sadly done little to protect the academic disciplines of the arts and humanities from budget cuts and closings. (Fradenburg 93)

This is a book that, for sure, has an appetite for poetry, music, the arts, and thoughts that make us alive and excited in spite of all controversies and actions to the contrary. Dismantling the rhetoric of the "discourses of crises" by showing how they enhance the same crises they intend to solve seems to me one of the key aspects of this book's crucial contribution. It is also a practical and effective example, reminds readers of the right of freedom of speech, and extends an invitation to cross-disciplinary experimental thoughts practiced within the academia.

In the disciplinary imaginary of contemporary discourse on the academy, the sciences are self-evidently utilitarian, and the humanities somehow lofty and lovely and loveable, but useless and impossible to evaluate. (Fradenburg 94)

The fact that the notion of the “useful” has so often been used to attack imaginative work (and pure science) does not mean that it should not be reclaimed, and I believe it should be reclaimed now. (Fradenburg 99)

Finally, the book’s main force and arguments are not in the side of a well behaved defense of the Liberal Arts, but, according to Daniel C. Remein, it is an "offense," an offensive attitude that does not ask permission for breathing to keep "our common aliveness" (Fradenburg 257). In other words, the beat pulsation, intellectual and passionate, that emanates from this book is a clear example of its (and our) utility: "In this way, it signals possibilities for going forth, together, depending upon where we stand here and now in traumatic proximity to the elsewhere of home" (Ellard 277).

Marília Librandi-Rocha's picture
Marília Librandi-Rocha is an Assistant Professor of Brazilian Literature at Stanford University. Her book, "Maranhão-Manhattan. Ensaios de Literatura Brasileira," was published by 7 Letras (Rio de Janeiro) in 2009. As a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center in 2013-14, she is currently working in her next book-length project, "Writing by Ear. Brazilian Modern Fiction and the Poetics of Listening," focusing on the theory of the novel and the actual debates on cosmopolitanism and World/Planetary literature through the perspective of authors such as Machado de Assis, Oswald de Andrade, Guimarães Rosa, and Clarice Lispector. Her recent articles have appeared in Culture, Theory & Critique, Critical Studies in Improvisation, Ellipsis, Mantis, and are forthcoming in Luso-Brazilian Review, Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea, and Letteratura D’América. L-Rocha is book review editor of ellipsis, journal of the American Portuguese Studies Association(Apsa).