Five Questions With Dr. Lindsay Atnip on Humanities in the Age of COVID-19

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Photo Courtesy of Lindsay Atnip

Ethan Yu
Contributing Writer

Dr. Lindsay Atnip is a postdoctoral scholar and lecturer in the Humanities & Social Change Center and religious studies department at UC Santa Barbara (UCSB). Last quarter, she taught a course on Moby Dick and its relation to modernity. She is currently teaching a class on the death of God. She specializes in philosophy, literature, and how the two can help us understand apocalyptic modes of thinking. In an interview conducted over email, Dr. Atnip answered a few questions about the role of the humanities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and formatting.

Photo provided by Lindsay Atnip.

1. What are your current research projects and interests of study at the moment? 

“Like many others, I’ve found it difficult to work, and the pandemic temporarily diverted me into some ‘occasional’ writing attempting to clarify, primarily for myself, certain perceptions and problems raised by present circumstances. For instance, in my pre-humanist life I was an economics major at the University of Chicago and I have been thinking about all the unintended present and future costs — not ‘just economic’ but in terms of human health, welfare, and life — of the lockdowns, and so I was writing about whether and how it made sense to apply any sort of ‘cost-benefit analysis’ weighing the lives saved from the disease versus those lost or severely diminished by unemployment, isolation, and so on. (I arrived at the conviction that you couldn’t directly apply that kind of calculus, but it took some work.) 

My longer-term project is, with perverse appropriateness, on apocalypse — in literature and as a modern reality. My dissertation (I graduated in June of 2019 from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago), aimed at developing a theory of how we are educated to human realities by reading and reflecting on literature, and demonstrating the theory and corresponding practice of reading with a few 20th-century American texts including Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Blood Meridian’ and Robert Lowell’s poem ‘The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket‘ — texts which seemed to me apocalyptic, not in the literal sense of depicting the end of the world but rather in suggesting a deeper feature of modern reality: that there are forces and tensions within human nature and, particularly, modern society and institutions, tending toward the undermining of both the material and what one might call the ‘spiritual’ conditions of human life — in particular, our capacity to conceive and respond to some kind of shared normative order — seemingly inexorably. I’m working now on an essay on apocalypse in relation to the environmental crisis — now, of course, also contextualized by our latest catastrophe — and gathering my energies to start turning the dissertation into a book.”

2. How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your views personally about the power of literature and the purpose of the humanities? 

“The radical disruptions and the sudden uncertainties resulting from the pandemic hit me — again, as for so many others — like a blow, a trauma in the sense of an event that could not be assimilated at the time that it happens, although I’m lucky not to have suffered a more immediate and concrete trauma like sudden unemployment or serious illness or the death of a loved one. The immediate effect was to make me feel as if my pre-pandemic reflections on apocalypse had been too much intellectual play, that I had not adequately understood what I was talking about. As I am emerging from the initial daze, I feel that my work has in fact allowed me to see certain aspects of our situation. But living through this moment in history has certainly added a dimension to my own understanding of what I had written previously. To put it crudely, I think I may have been somewhat too enthusiastic and naïve about the prospect of apocalypse. 

More generally, I’ve felt that the pandemic clarified what kinds of humanistic inquiry are worthwhile — for me, at least — and what kinds are not. There were some things I was thinking of on trendy topics (academically speaking), and I completely lost the motivation to work on those, or anything that just felt like a ‘purely intellectual problem.’ Clichéd as it may be to say so, the pandemic put things into perspective — it suspended ‘normality,’ the usual institutional expectations, and revealed what is more abiding and fundamental. 

But in my own reflections and in those of colleagues of mine and other thinkers, I think the pandemic has borne out the importance of literature — and philosophy, and humanistic education in general — in comprehending what is happening to us, from Jill Lepore’s article in The New Yorker about what the literature of epidemics teaches us, to a friend’s Kantian reflections in The Point’s Quarantine Journal about the ethics of not ‘staying home.‘ The humanities don’t tell us what to do, but they sensitize us to the stakes of the question and, I think, point indistinctly toward some standard of ‘the human’ in light of which we ought to make our decisions.”

3. There’s another recent article published in The New Yorker by University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard, which had an ambiguous answer towards the question “What do the humanities do in a crisis?” What are your thoughts? 

“Prof. Callard argues that a humanistic education does not necessarily allow one to act more heroically (or to act at all) during a crisis, but that it does create the possibility of communicating the human reality of the crisis. She frames her essay with the story of Jean Améry, who believed — and wrote — that his humanistic learning failed him when he was interned in concentration camps during the Second World War. Callard says, though, that his educated humanism enabled him to powerfully convey the brutality and suffering he and others experienced, how ‘whoever was tortured, stays tortured.’ 

I agree with the overarching argument, but there is something about Callard’s characterization of the humanities that I resist, which is captured in the headline and subhead of her piece — ‘What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis? Crises are, at least while they are happening, not educational opportunities. Still, there are things we can learn.’ This suggests that ‘the humanities’ are fundamentally an academic field of study — the reading of works of philosophy and literature and the classics and so on, and inquiry into the (somewhat specialized) problems that they pose. She invokes Aristotle’s idea of ‘contemplation,’ a good in itself, as the end of the academy, and suggests that what the humanist ought to be uniquely good at in this kind of crisis would be making use of the leisure of quarantine, spinning the ‘straw’ of ’empty hours’ into the ‘gold’ of reflection on present circumstances: 

‘Now is an apt time to ponder the fact that the human condition means living under the shadow of death. It is an apt time to situate the present in the broad sweep of history. Deprived of the reality of human connection, we are at least in a position to appreciate the idea of it. And, given that many of us are teachers, we should also be able to communicate this to others — to offer them a way out of numbness and anxiety.’

None of this is wrong, nor is Callard’s subsequent observation that the disruption and distractions of the pandemic work strongly against the kind of attention needed for these efforts. But Callard’s way of putting things sometimes makes the humanities sound like a specialized domain and makes it sound as if what humanists might have to offer are various kinds of contextualization or therapy, helpful but ancillary to the immediate realities (political, practical) that confront us. It seems to me, on the contrary, that the humanities are essential to grasping the reality of what is happening in all its dimensions, that is what they ‘do’ — as her conclusion about Améry indeed suggests.”

4. How can students taking philosophy, literature, and humanities classes relate to the material being taught despite everything going on and the circumstances of virtual classrooms? 

“I am empathetic to any student feeling alienated in their classes under the current circumstances, and I’m not sure that feeling connected to the material is something that one can force or will. But as my response to the previous question indicated, I do think that the humanities are intrinsically relevant and necessary to understanding ‘current events,’ even when the connection isn’t immediately obvious. 

I’m currently teaching a class in religious studies called ‘The Death of God?’ There is no direct treatment of current events but much of the material reflects on the difficulty of making sense of suffering and the loss of a common normative framework for judgment and action. I’ve certainly felt keenly my status as an ‘inessential worker’ over the past weeks, and at times wished I were a ‘real doctor’ like my sister, a physician in family medicine working on testing for COVID-19. But the pandemic is more than a practical problem and a threat to human life and livelihood. It is something that is befalling humanity and transforming the human world and humanity isn’t just a biological species; it is — we are — social, cultural, historical. What humanity is is both revealed and constituted by how we represent and understand ourselves in art and literature and philosophy. Every issue raised by the pandemic — the inequalities it reveals, what we lose when we can’t touch or inhabit common space, whether and how one can consider ‘trade-offs’ between different human lives, or between human lives and other human goods or values, and how we might imagine or prepare or hope for ‘the After’ (as I saw it put somewhere) — is better and more deeply responded to when it’s seen against the deep background of ‘the human’ that only comes into view through humanistic engagement with the tradition of thought and imaginative representation. 

In any humanities class deserving of the name, even one in which it would be very difficult to find any thematic tie to the pandemic or its fallout, you’re learning both explicitly and tacitly the conditions of our shared and differentiated humanity. 

And if you can find temporary respite or distraction from current events, if a poem or a philosophical reflection on some less ‘timely’ aspect of human life can afford you a moment of escape or pleasure, that’s a perfectly good basis for connecting with the material, too.”

5. As mentioned above, Callard said, “Crises are, at least while they are happening, not educational opportunities.” Can you elaborate more on what you think about this statement? What, if anything, can the humanities teach us during this crisis? 

“I think I disagree, although I take Prof. Callard’s point — that crises disrupt the conditions for a certain kind of attention, which is a condition for a certain kind of education. I have to say that I have found this crisis to be enormously educative, and I use ‘enormous’ having in mind its relation to ‘enormity,’ a huge and terrible catastrophe or crime. In the preface to ‘The Origins of Totalitarianism‘, Hannah Arendt writes, discomfitingly, of how the terrible historical events of the mid-twentieth century brought to light what had been the case but had been hidden: ‘without the fictitious world of totalitarian movements, in which with unparalleled clarity the essential uncertainties of our time have been spelled out, we might have been driven to our doom without ever becoming aware of what has been happening.’ The pandemic has revealed much that was hidden, at least from many of the more privileged of us — perhaps most fundamentally, the sheer fragility of so much that we assumed to be stable. The job of the humanities is to clarify the human meaning of what has been revealed about the conditions of preserving human lives and livelihoods, in light of the whole history of reflection on what constitutes a truly human life and world. 

One of those threatened institutions is that of the academic humanities itself, which were already undergoing a prolonged decline which the pandemic is likely to dramatically accelerate as colleges and students try to decide what is ‘essential’ in the face of severely diminished economic resources and prospects. I hope that we as a society come to see that what is essential are all of those things that allow us to sustain our humanity, and that this will be proven in the difficult decisions which will increasingly confront us in the months and years ahead.”