In ‘Balancing Agendas: Social Sciences and Humanities in Europe’, Gabriele Griffin (Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, October 2006; vol. 5, 3: pp. 229-241 ) wrote about the film representation of one of the London bombers as an example of the Arts and Humanities providing both insights into and perspectives on the challenges Europe faces in the 21st century.
Her article came out of a ‘complex, multi-paradigmatic and generous humane conversation’ reported in ‘‘‘What have the Humanities to Offer 21st-Century Europe?’’ Reflections of a note taker’ (Parker, 2008)
and specifically from her address to a 2005 European Commission Conference on the Humanities and Social Sciences in European research. Her keynote address started with what she saw as the main ‘future challenges’ as, not (only) military, economic and environmental
but the central destabilisation arising from fear and fearfulness.
Ten years later, her words could have been written, or blogged, yesterday:
‘The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in our midst, so to speak, which this film – My Son
the Fanatic – addresses and which had its real-life equivalent in the London bombers,
raises all manner of important questions, from the efficacy of multicultural policies,
now very much under attack, to questions about our understanding of social relations
and cultural formations among diverse communities.[…] In my view we pay far too
little attention to such cultural representations, traditionally the domain of humanities
disciplines, which render visible cultural moments, movements, and tectonic shifts that
we need to learn to see and read, not least in the interests of our (inter)national
security. There is a long and honourable tradition in the Arts and Humanities and
their objects/subjects of enquiry of (to use a Quaker saying) ‘speaking truth to power’,
and this makes these domains important for research purposes, not least because they
offer challenges to prevailing dominant discourses. (Griffin p.234)
Twenty-first-century Europe is generally perceived as a complex, fearful place in
which to live and work (Parker, 2008: 86). The root of the fear seems to be two-fold
– fear of not being able to account rationally for things, and/or fear at the
impossibility of acting rationally in the face of the conflicting and incompatible
accounts offered of observable phenomena.
Drawing, finely, on Butler and Bourdieu, she concluded: ‘The humanities’ fundamental
processes offer engagement with fundamental issues, without offering
simplistic ‘comprehension’. Rather, they habitually deal with conflicting and
incompatible paradigms, producing narratives of multi-faceted data that can
address multiply situated audiences – including those excluded by the rhetoric of
‘us and them’ or of power (Griffin, 2006: 236).
‘Speaking Truth to Power’: Challenging prevailing discourses
How challenge prevailing discourse?
Well, that’s the question! Our answer has always been to look to, generate and
publish transformatory work and essays and new voices offering challenges from the
classroom. We have set up this blog and advocacy site offering some disciplinary
answers: for, if the challenges of fundamentalism, of fanaticism, of identifying the
self against or with the ‘other’ are only too clearly still current, the site of conversation
has to some extent changed. We still publish in this journal such addresses to important
international conferences revised after feedback and reflection and multi-continent
‘blind’ peer review; we still organise, edit and publish topic and discipline-based
fora; but the location of initial discussions has changed and their pace speeded up.
In the month of Charlie Hebdo and ‘the mutating terror threat’ (Maher, 2015),
we started a discipline-based ‘Parrhesia’ blog which came out of a Classics ‘sandpit’
about the question whether the university classroom should respect all sensibilities
or be a special place where any views should be freely expressed and
explored. ‘Are [Aristophanes’] Rape jokes ever funny?’; ‘From Abortion to
Pederasty: DIFFICULT AND SENSITIVE DISCUSSIONS IN THE
[CLASSICS] CLASSROOM’ and ‘Parrhesia: THAT’S
OFFENSIVE! CRITICISM, IDENTITY, RESPECT BY STEFAN COLLINI’
which has resulted in an upcoming journal forum on the
This is one small but timely example of what we hope to do in a blog and
advocacy site which will build into a disciplinary and topical resource to add to our 15 volumes of Special and Virtual discipline-based issues.
In ‘What have the Humanities to Offer 21st-Century Europe?’ we claimed:
The Humanities can address, and indeed specialize in accounting for, such complex observable phenomena as, for instance, the rise of terror. The Humanities’ fundamental processes offer engagement with fundamental issues, without offering simplistic ‘comprehension’. Rather, they habitually deal with conflicting and incompatible
paradigms, producing narratives of multi-faceted data that can address multiply-situated audiences – including those excluded by the rhetoric of ‘us and them’
or of power.
More, the narratives explore, while explaining, the basic modes of
inquiry, offering plurally-narrated models of essential mechanisms such as cause
Humanities’ critical accounts contain, in self-authorizing narratives, critique of the paradigms themselves. Indeed, the narratives question the paradigms
that support the inference of cause from effect.
They offer problematizing, hypothesizing, reflective and synthesizing accounts of data that take into account the plural explanatory possibilities.
In a complex world, in which overarching explanatory paradigms are hard to find and harder to use to explain particulars, humanities’ methods offer rich forms of explanation of significance and singularity. (Parker, 2008: 86)
Narratives explore, while explaining, the basic modes of inquiry… critical accounts contain, in self-authorizing narratives, critique of the paradigms themselves…
rich forms of explanation of significance and singularity….
We hope that each of our issues contains exemplary writing: paradigm-challenging essays, illuminating case studies, reflections on innovations in, values of and advocacy for our disciplines’ meaning-making processes.