Human nature, broken, 8

The answer to a question we have all been wondering about: Where does the stairwell writing come from at the U of C?

Helen Mirra’s indexing of the texts of Addams and Dewey and the display of those indexes as painted signs throughout the interior spaces of the University of Chicago must be understood, I think, as a subtle appropriation of the medium and discipline of the textual index, one that remediates and relocates it in several different senses. First, the choice of Addams and Dewey as exemplary cases treats them as indices of something crucial about this particular university: its foundational commitment to a dialectic between an external and internal sense of the mission of the university, exemplified by education, on the one hand, and social work, on the other. “Outreach” and “inreach” might be the unfortunate bureaucratic labels for this double mission, which is also exemplified by the constitution of the university as a structure held together by the tension between professions and research, teaching and publication (the press was, of course, among the founding departments of the university).

Earlier, I compared the index as an empty structure or frame to an architecture awaiting inhabitants or a haunting. The buildings of the University of Chicago are abundantly inhabited, as anyone who fights for office space is well aware, but they are also haunted by the thoughts of those who have taught and learned here and never more profoundly than by the thoughts of two of its founding intellects, its foremother and forefather as it were. Between them, Addams and Dewey articulated the explicit, conscious dialectic of the university’s constitution. But Mirra, in reinscribing them as ghostly presences, traces the vanished voices that still echo in the hallways, invites us to learn from the unconscious of the university. This, I think, is the secret to her whimsical and rather personal indexing of their texts, an indexing that obeys all the impersonal alphanumeric rules of the standard index but then doubly rearticulates those rules. Mirra locates a kind of found poetry waiting to be indexed in their texts, from “Abstract, in a bad sense, 6” to “World, as fearful and awful, 42.” She simultaneously gathers and scatters this poem, as if planting seeds and gathering the harvest at the same time. The Franke Institute for the Humanities is the site of gathering, where the indexes in their totality are displayed. The scattering is done, starting from the Classics building, clockwise around the quad. The result of this scattering or distribution is sometimes enigmatic, sometimes ironic or uncannily appropriate; on the central stairs of the Classics building we find “Human nature, broken, 8”; near the computer science department in the Ryerson Physical Laboratory we are greeted by “Geometry, beginning as agricultural art, 129”; in the former Walker Museum, ex‐business school, and current center of the humanities division and the English department, we discover “Generalities, glittering, 139.”

Anyone who thinks that the University of Chicago is a place for the orderly structuring of the disciplines or of interdisciplinary systems as opposed to the anarchistic play of the indisciplinary will be cured of this misapprehension by Mirra’s lovely, playful work. I hope we, as well, when pondering the fate of our several disciplines, will not be led into a defensive conservatism about what constitutes authentic disciplines or professionalism. We must insist on the right of the arts and the humanities to be just as experimental and rigorous as the sciences, just as open to the shifting character of archives of human history as the scientists are to new evidence and new methods of producing evidence (since evidence is always produced, not simply found). While we must of course insist on the production of knowledge about culture and society, we must not resign the claim to wisdom or consign it to the uplift function of undergraduate education. The humanities has a higher mission with respect to that deeply contested entity known as the human species, namely, to find out what it is, has been, and can become.

taken from: Case Studies II The Disciplines and the Arts

Art, Fate, and the Disciplines: Some Indicators

W. J. T. Mitchell

Critical Inquiry Volume 35, Number 4, Summer 2009

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