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Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ramcat Reads #12


RAMCAT READS #12

Harris, Sam. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press, 2010.  Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.

Within the last decade, interest in the forms moral and ethical criticism might assume has increased among some humanists as faith in the efficacy of theory as theory has declined.  It is a sign of progress that Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, and Marc Hauser, a psychologist, have brought the sciences to the foreground in their very readable speculations about the origins of human morality.  The keyword is "readable."  Both authors strike a conversational tone in discussing issues of moral philosophy, and both are refreshingly honest about the limits of explanation.  Readers who are baffled by the flood of moral irrationality and hardcore hatreds that assaults critical thinking in 2016 can arm themselves by attending to the models of thought which Harris and Hauser provide.  Humanists who have been reluctant to make common cause with principled scientists may be persuaded to alter the course of their thinking.

Sollors, Werner. African American Writing: A Literary Approach. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2016.

Were a relatively unknown Professor of English at a small college to propose that her collection of essays provided a literary approach to African American writing, she would be challenged to (1) discriminate African American writing from African American literature and (2) devote several paragraphs to what was uniquely "literary" about her approach (and perhaps whether the "approach" involves motions of "objectivity" or "indulgence and subjective appreciation." When the Henry B. and Anne M. Cabot Research Professor of English Literature at Harvard University makes the same proposal, a Columbia University Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies asserts that his "model of literary scholarship will be indispensable to those who study and teach African American literature."  In the Age of Trump, it is noteworthy that the unknown professor is virtually put on trial while the privileged Harvard professor gets off scot-free.  The discrepancy must not be passed over lightly, because it reveals one of the many hidden "rules" in the game of scholarship that is simultaneously a game of ideological hegemony.  Sollors' African American Writing does have some merit in its drawing of attention to works by Frank Webb and Adrienne Kennedy and to experiences W. E. B. DuBois had in Nazi Germany in 1936, but his meditations on Equiano, Jean Toomer, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston,  and Amiri Baraka are far less than indispensable. What is indispensable is the discussion of black writing that remains independent of colleges and universities. The status quo limits of the "literary" retard the growth of knowledge in the Age of Trump.  Occasionally, Sollors provides tidbits of contextualization to make up for the moral flabbiness of "a literary approach," and one hopes the ethical dimensions of doing so is not ignored by his Harvard students.  It they (and their peers who don't live in circles of privilege) examine those dimensions, they may profit from the lesson Phillis Wheatley tried to teach students at the University at Cambridge a couple of centuries ago.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      August 28, 2016


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