Ahmed El Shamsy, Kaneesha Parsard, and Kenneth Warren. (Photos courtesy of the subjects)

Humanities Day, recapped

Did you miss this year’s Humanities Day? We’ve got you covered.

If you couldn't make it to the Division of the Humanities’ annual celebration of its discipline, we'll bring it to you. Here are capsules of three presentations from the October 15, 2022, event. Hungry for more? Videos from these and previous years’ talks are available on YouTube.

The afterlife of the written word

“How do you guys dispose of books?” Ahmed El Shamsy asked the audience gathered in Stuart Hall. “Try not to,” one attendee offered.

Trashing books feels uncomfortable, a sentiment shared by our premodern counterparts. The challenge was particularly acute for Jews and Muslims, who faced logistical and theological challenges when deciding how to get rid of written material that might contain the name of God, explained El Shamsy, a professor of Islamic thought in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, in his talk “How Muslims Disposed of Books.”

Both traditions, he said, assign “a particular value of sacredness to written material,” perhaps because Arabic and Hebrew are scriptural languages. As a result, the simple question of what to do with unneeded documents, ranging from worn-out copies of religious texts to property records, prompted serious theological thought.

Jews found a solution in genizot, repositories for civil and sacred writings often held in synagogues. Among Muslims, the question provoked much debate but no resolution. In the early eighth century, some scholars proposed burning texts while others objected to the practice. Washing texts emerged as another option, with 14th-century handbooks citing the practice as preferable to burning. “But then of course you have jurists—and jurists always come up with a counterexample,” El Shamsy said. “Like, what do you do with water that flows off?”

In the 13th century, early Sunnis uncomfortable with burning written material proposed that it be buried instead. The document tombs that resulted bore a remarkable resemblance to genizot—hardly a coincidence. Jews and Muslims “lived side by side,” El Shamsy said. “It is very likely that there was a crossover in the attitudes towards these texts and preserving these texts.”

Of course, El Shamsy noted during the postlecture Q&A, scholars don’t know how scrupulously ordinary people followed any of this guidance. “The theoretical discussions we have access to are among elite thinkers,” he said. “How far that trickled down is similar to our discussions today, like, how many people actually do recycling?” —S. A.

Among friends

Pressured to marry and work as housewives, some Caribbean working-class women in the 1920s and ’30s turned instead to friending, a Caribbean English term Kaneesha Parsard defines as “casual romantic and sexual relationships with the expectation of support and sometimes explicitly for pay.” In her talk “The Friending Plot,” Parsard, an assistant professor of English, framed this rebellion against marriage as “a means of survival and not merely scandalous.”

What Parsard calls the “friending plot”—a nod to the Austenian “marriage plot”—appears in fiction by the Beacon Group, a collective of Trinidadian writers and social critics in the ’20s and ’30s. The friending plot is circular, Parsard explained: “It typically begins with seduction, is sustained by the exchange of sex for money, and ends, often temporarily, with a breach of contract, when the woman is suspected to be unfaithful.” Though friending exposes women to insecurity—even violence—they can choose partners who satisfy their immediate needs and desires.

As an example, Parsard offered the 1929 short story “Triumph” by writer and activist C. L. R. James, the Beacon Group’s most prominent member. Mamitz, the protagonist, initially destitute and abandoned by a friend, attracts the attention of two new men who pay her debts and provide food and gifts. Mamitz’s jealous neighbor Irene tells the men about one another, threatening to unravel everything. But Mamitz triumphs, reconciling with both men.

Parsard emphasized that the friending plot depends on friendship (in a traditional sense) among women: women offer one another stability that friending does not provide. Mamitz’s best friend, Celestine, supports her when her friend leaves her and advocates for her after Irene’s betrayal. Mamitz in turn shares gifts from her male friends with the other barrack-yard women (except for Irene). As Parsard explained, Mamitz’s “triumph is not only in [her] gain, but also that hers are wages for friends.”

Working together, these women enjoy pleasure and freedom they cannot imagine finding in marriage. Concluding her talk, Parsard quoted Celestine’s reaction when asked whether she plans to marry: comparing marriage to slavery, Celestine affirms, “I all right as I be.” —C. C.

The gilded page

Calling the present a “new gilded age,” Humanities Day keynote speaker Kenneth Warren, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English, examined how contemporary novels portray social relations under conditions of extreme inequality. In his talk “Wealth, Inequality, and the Novel,” Warren questioned whether our capitalist reality is subject to the techniques and ambitions of the classic novel.

Writers in the realist tradition, he said, have aspired to a “super vision” describing life at all levels of society and the connections between levels. But the books he discussed draw an “absolute disjuncture” between the experience of the ultrawealthy and that of the rest. In such a world, novelists have little hope of grasping the totality of society, even as success could transport them to the other side.

In Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (Knopf, 2020) and John Lanchester’s 2012 novel Capital (W. W. Norton), Warren showed, the lives of characters who reside outside “the country of money” are neither seen nor seeable by the very rich. Smitty, a wealthy artist in Capital, wishes he could call all his assistants “Nigel” to smooth out their pesky individuality. A newly rich character in The Glass Hotel stops seeing her bodyguards at all. For St. John Mandel, Warren added, “the barrier goes both ways”: the unrich understand the rich as “avatars of extreme wealth” rather than as people.

Warren, who studies American and African American literature from the 19th century on, is the author of So Black and Blue: Ralph Ellison and the Occasion of Criticism (University of Chicago Press, 2003). Comparing social invisibility in Ellison’s Invisible Man (Random House, 1952) with that in The Glass Hotel and Capital, he noted that the invisibility of Ellison’s unnamed narrator to the White world is based on the perceivers’ prejudices about the perceived—it “has an act of refusal at its core.” In the later novels, the fog envelops entire social positions. It’s arguably bleaker, a systematic unseeing of entire social positions, whether prejudice comes into it or not. In “a world fractured by a dramatic upward distribution of wealth,” Warren reflected, the novel form itself appears diminishingly able to offer “the possibility of a commonality of experience.”—L. D.