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Remaking the Humanities

Professor Kandice Chuh (The Graduate Center) says her “favorite thing” is to be in “in a seminar room, thinking with other people,” putting herself “out there … willing to be wrong about things.”

Perhaps that willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and to be challenged explains the approach in Chuh’s book, The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities ‘After Man.’ The book critiques the way traditional humanism has shaped our views of history, art, literature, and the world. It also offers alternative ways of interpreting and reacting to what we see. 

Chuh notes that the original definition of aesthetics has a “broader meaning” beyond visual appearance, referring to perception and the senses, “and how our body feels something to be true. … It goes back to understanding that the education we receive, the institutions we value as a society, are all shaping our gut reactions to ideas.” 

Chuh’s book explores the ways in which our aesthetics and sensibilities have been shaped by a “bourgeois liberal humanism” that has long been critiqued for bolstering racism, strictures of gender, colonialism, and capitalism. 

Chuh offers several works of literature that lay bare the flaws in liberal humanism, including Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, about a Native American man returning from fighting in Asia during World War II. Silko, Chuh says, connects the destruction of Native Americans with colonialism in Asia, and draws parallels between nuclear warfare in Japan and mining uranium on U.S. tribal lands. 

Chuh also shows how Langston Hughes, in his story Home, matter-of-factly presents the viewpoint of a white mob attacking a gifted black musician. The musician is exchanging pleasantries on the street with an elderly white music teacher who admires his work. But the mob “objected to a Negro talking to a white woman … attacking a WHITE woman – RAPING a WHITE WOMAN,” Hughes wrote, showing how the mob’s perceptions — their aesthetics — distorted the encounter they observed and in their minds, justified their response. 

Traditional liberal solutions — multiculturalism, diversity, sympathy, guilt — won’t create the “structural change” necessary to upend the “reigning humanism” that has reinforced centuries of oppression, slavery, and exploitation, Chuh writes. What’s needed, she says, are “illiberal humanisms” to “work against” the ways that conventional “arrangements of knowledge” make “the histories of violent subjugation … beautiful, reasonable, and acceptable.”  

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Beyond SUM

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The Difference Aesthetics Makes
Duke University Press, 2019

Work By

Kandice Chuh (Professor, English) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools

The Graduate Center

Bonus Content

"A Professor Questions the Dominant Ideas in Her Discipline" (The Graduate Center, CUNY)