La plus rare et la plus pure

After yesterday’s search for the source of Simone Weil’s oft-quoted “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity” went a bit Lot-49ish on me, I wondered whether I should just have been satisfied with that “attributed to.” But I’m glad I didn’t let it go, for a couple of reasons.

First, I did finally get ahold of a copy of a version of the actual source. The quote comes from a 1942 letter from Weil to poet Joë Bousquet, which from what I can tell was first published in a 1950 issue of Cahiers du Sud, and then subsequently in a volume of Weil and Bousquet’s correspondence. My library has neither of these, but thanks to the extraordinary institutional generosity of Interlibrary Loan, a scan of the Cahiers du Sud version landed in my inbox last night. (Seriously, can we all take a moment to be grateful for ILL?)

And second, the context of the quotation is even more important to my own context than I’d guessed it could be. Bousquet was in the hospital, suffering from a grievous war injury, when he and Weil corresponded. She’d apparently given him a piece of writing, on which he’d given her some kind of comment. And thus:

J’ai été très touchée de constater que vous aviez fait véritablement attention aux quelques pages que je vous ai montrées. Je n’en conclus pas qu’elles méritent de l’attention. Je regarde cette attention comme un don gratuit et généreux de votre part. L’attention est la forme la plus rare et la plus pure de la générosité.

That is:

I was touched to see that you had truly paid attention to some pages that I showed you. I did not take from that that they deserved attention. I regard that attention as a gift freely and generously given on your part. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

Being closely read, and receiving careful feedback, may in turn be the rarest and purest form of attention. I owe the readers of Generous Thinking more than I can say.

Generosity and Attention

Among the reading I’ve picked up thanks to suggestions from the most generous readers of the draft of Generous Thinking is a bit of Simone Weil. Alan Jacobs, who pointed me toward her work in a couple of spots, noted in particular that she “seems to have thought that [attention] is the primary form of generosity.” So I’ve been reading around in the places where her thoughts turn to attention, including Gravity and Grace and Waiting for God.

A quick search online for Weil and attention, however, surfaces a vast number of references to her most quotable quote:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

But that quote is never accompanied by a citation; in fact, this incompletely answered question on Quora leads not to a source but to yet another quotation. It’s the free-floating nature of that aphorism that I suspect leads Alan to say that she “seems” to have thought this connection between attention and generosity.

So I find myself in an odd spot: The quotation, assuming it’s a quotation, perfectly describes the thing I am trying to explore. And yet this specific point is small enough, and there are so many other issues in revising the manuscript that also demand my attention, that I can only give so much time to running down the source, assuming there is one.

I’m opting to go with an “attributed to” reference, at least for the moment, but I’d be enormously grateful if anyone were able to point me to an actual original.

On Generosity and Obligation

I am returning, at last, to the thoughts I was exploring in my recent posts on Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (post 1 | post 2), and I’m starting to wrestle this morning with the big one: obligation. Thinking about community as a strategic rather than an idealized concept, community in its pragmatic coalition-building sense, leads me to consider the work required to create and sustain communities. If the kinds of communities that I am seeking in trying to imagine a more generous relationship not only between the university and the publics that it engages but also, crucially, within the university itself are first and foremost voluntary communities—self-organizing, self-governing collectives based in affiliation and solidarity—what exactly can we be said to owe those communities? Do those communities and our relationships to them impose obligations on us?

This question about obligation came up early on in the review process for Generous Thinking. For some readers, my suggestion that “we” (meaning, in this case, those of us involved in and committed to the life of the university) have obligations to one another and to the world evoked a sense of noblesse oblige, a condescending assumption that we bear gifts that we must bestow upon the less fortunate around us. For others, the notion of obligation seemed to erode the idea of generosity itself, undermining individual commitment with a sense of requirement. Several commenters wanted me to replace the term, but I remain convinced that it’s the right one, though I’m still working on explaining why.

Obligation as I intend it is not connected, except etymologically, to noblesse oblige. In fact, I’d argue that noblesse oblige is a particularly self-aggrandizing form of voluntarism: we may feel that we have to give to those in need because of our station or privilege, but that “have to” is one we can easily walk away from; the commitment is entirely self-selected. The obligation that I’m focused on, that I hope that we can consider in the context of generosity, is one of which we cannot absolve ourselves. As Francois Lachance pointed out in the discussion, “obligation” derives from the Latin obligare, “from ob- ‘towards’ + ligare ‘to bind’.” That is the sense of obligation that I want to explore: that which binds us together, that which we cannot walk away from without doing grave damage both to ourselves and to the fabric of the whole.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have choice, as members of voluntary communities, about whether to fulfill those obligations, or that there isn’t agency in the kinds of generosity I’m hoping to foster. But I remain convinced that we do bear actual obligations toward one another deriving from our common presence in a space, an institution, a community. We owe one another recognition as members of that community. We owe one another attention to the concerns we bring to that community.

In the course of the discussion of Generous Thinking, I started wondering where my use of “obligation” in this sense began, and so searched my notes. The term popped up in several key locations, including Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. (25)

These two strands, for Appiah, exist in an ongoing tension: we bear obligations that bind us together; we take seriously the differences that mean we must be allowed to go our own way. That individual, agential freedom does not relieve us of our shared obligations, but nor does the nature of our obligations eliminate the agency that all of us bear in our own lives.

This tension also appeared in my notes in Lewis Hyde’s consideration of the debts that participation in a gift economy creates. Hyde cites Marcel Mauss on the “three related obligations” that mark gift economies: “the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate” (xxi). Hyde winds up at moments treating the notion of obligation in a fashion much closer to the reading of my commenters—as a requirement that a gift imposes upon us, an imposition that we attempt to remove by passing on—but it’s also a relation that sustains the entirety of a community. There is, I think, something important to consider in this connection between obligation and the gift, especially if we are to seek alternatives to the neoliberal economies in which our institutional and personal lives are otherwise embedded.

Most compelling for me, however, is the use that Bill Readings makes of obligation in The University in Ruins. In attempting to define a path out of the morass that the University of Excellence has landed us in, Readings turns repeatedly to the notion of obligation and its connection to community. His goal, he notes, is “an anti-modernist rephrasing of teaching and learning as sites of obligation, as loci of ethical practices, rather than as means for the transmission of scientific knowledge. Teaching thus becomes answerable to the question of justice, rather than to the criteria of truth” (154). That connection among obligation, ethics, and justice leads to his commitment to dissensus and his sense that “the condition of pedagogical practice is, in Blanchot’s words, ‘an infinite attention to the other’” (161), an ethical obligation that cannot be discharged. And an obligation whose infinitude is created in no small part by our being-in-community; “the obligation of community,” he notes, is “one to which we are answerable but to which we cannot supply an answer” (187).

If we are going to build and sustain communities, then—not romanticized communities, but rather communities based in solidarity, communities based on non-market relations of care—we need to be able to think about our obligations to one another, about our relationships to our voluntary communities beyond voluntarism. Coming full-circle to Joseph: her association of community with the structure of the non-profit, which deploys private philanthropy as a replacement for public commitment to the common good, underscores not only the voluntarism at the heart of noblesse oblige but also the political and economic sources of it: I am generous with what I have—I choose to be generous with what I have—precisely because we are no longer committed to one another as members of a shared social structure. Instead, the shift of responsibility for the public welfare toward private entities displaces our obligations to one another in favor of individual liberties and, I think, leaves us queasy about the notion of obligation altogether.

What I’m trying to explore in considering generosity as a potential ground for rebuilding the relationship between the university and the public good, then, is in part the force of the commitments that we make to one another, but commitments that are based in an ethical obligation that endures beyond and outside individual agency. It’s a commitment that we must continually make the choice to renew, but an obligation that persists regardless of our choice.

I’m still wrestling with all of this as I revise the manuscript, but the notions of community, solidarity, and commitment to the public good with which I’m working seem defined by the unresolved tensions in the relationship between generosity and obligation. As Readings says, we are left “with an obligation to explore our obligations without believing that we will come to the end of them” (190). This is where I’m trying to linger. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And then there are the mornings when I can spend two hours trying to untangle the logic in a single paragraph. I’ll grant that the thing I’m trying to say isn’t, and shouldn’t be, simple. And the paragraph is one of the keys to explaining why this chapter is in the book at all, so it’s important to get it right. But I didn’t expect it to be quite that hard to say. And the difficulty makes me wonder whether I’ve really gotten it straightened out at all.

Leaving this here, in any case, to remind me to be a bit humble in this process. I have found few things quite as difficult as writing with clarity.

Reading, Anxiety, Possibility

Every so often you come across That Book, the exact thing you need to read, and a lot of the time it’s something that you might not have run into before and that you certainly had no idea you needed to read, and probably wouldn’t have except that more than one person pointed you toward it, and then it’s so much the thing you needed that you kick yourself for not having found it sooner yourself.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Anyhow: Anne Gere’s Intimate Practices: Literacy and Cultural Work in U.S. Women’s Clubs, 1880-1920 is this week’s That Book. And I’m more than a little bruised from all the self-kicking I’ve been doing.

I might be willing to forgive myself, if the title turned up in my previous research, for assuming that it was a history of turn of the century women’s clubs, and thus that it didn’t have much to tell me about my own current project — but a slightly deeper glance might have given me a hint that there was something I needed here. The book focuses on those clubs’ reading and writing practices at the heart of their self-formation and their public and private work. Even more, her chapter on “(un)professional reading and writing” makes a compelling argument about the ways that scholars of literature came to professionalize in no small part in opposition to the models of reading and writing embraced by clubwomen. This bit of the narrative of how we got to be the way we are is exactly what I’ve been missing, so completely at the heart of the argument I’ve been trying to make (about the dominant role that competition plays in today’s university structures, and the ways that a more generous engagement with the “common reader” might help promote a recommitment of our institutions to the public good) that I’m both overjoyed to have found it and mortified not to have found it sooner.

This is why I wish I had time enough to stop and read all the things.

That Intimate Practices is That Book, if it hadn’t already become clear, would have been made glaringly obvious when I ran into one uncanny bit of overlap. In a section that I’ve entitled “Why Do Readers Read?”, I note that dismissing pleasure in reading (whether as illicit, or unserious, or whathaveyou) opens space for anxiety to become one’s dominant reading affect, and particularly “anxiety about whether we’re reading the right stuff, or reading for the right reasons, or reading in the right way.” Gere, for her part, describes professionalized scholars of English, claiming for themselves a role as arbiters of taste, as having the effect of “making nonprofessionals fearful they were reading the wrong books or reading them in the wrong ways” (217). I’ve scoured my notes, as well as the texts I previously cited around that spot, to be sure that I didn’t somehow pick Gere’s phrasing up at second hand, but I’ve found nothing. So I’m taking this coincidence as a sign of deep connection, if an unknowing one, and I’m working on how I might build on it, what the rest of my argument might still have to learn.

Strategy and Solidarity

As I noted in my last post, I recently read Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community as a means of thinking a bit more deeply about the ways that Generous Thinking deploys the notion of community. As Joseph’s analysis suggests, the concept is often used as a placeholder for something that is outside the dominant structures of contemporary public life, a subcultural relation that harkens back1 to a mythical premodern moment in which people lived and worked in more direct connection with one another, without the mediating forces of modern capitalist institutions. It’s also often an imagined relation, in Benedict Anderson’s sense, as the invocation of “community” is designed to yoke together groups whose singularity is largely constructed, “the gay community” being Joseph’s primary referent. Calls to work on behalf of the community or to the community’s values wind up not only, as I noted in my last post, ignoring community’s supplementary role with respect to capital but also essentializing a highly complex and intersectional set of social relations.

And it’s that last that got me wondering, first, whether a key part of the problem with “the community” might be less “community” than “the” — whether acknowledging and foregrounding the multiple and multiplicitous communities with which we interact might help us avoid the exclusions that the declaration of groupness is often designed to produce, the us that inevitably suggests a them. And second, whether the model of identity politics might lead us to a community politics that can similarly deploy a strategic essentialism in thinking about community, a recognition that our definitions of whatever community we’re discussing are always reductive, but also at least potentially useful as an organizing tool. Can we develop a strategic sense of community that is based not on a dangerous, mythical notion of unity, but rather around solidarity, around coalition-building?

It’s the pragmatic, organizing, coalition-building function of community, or communities, that I’m most interested in, both in thinking about identifying the publics with which the university might work and in thinking about the structure of the university itself. As I discussed in my last post, Joseph compellingly analyzes the function of the non-profit organization, an entity very often associated with community in the underconsidered sense she critiques. Under late capital, the non-profit has been asked to take over the space of providing for community needs or supporting community interests that had formerly been occupied by the state as the entity responsible for the public welfare. The impact of that transition on higher education has been enormous: state universities, which had long functioned as state institutions in the most literal sense, have themselves been privatized, transformed almost wholly into non-profit organizations.

So what might be possible if instead of allowing institutions of higher education to be understood as giant nonprofits, required to spend an enormous amount of time and energy on fundraising, we were instead to adopt a strategic sense of “community” as the basis for their structure? Are there particular forms of voluntary community — the labor union, for instance — that might provide models for the development of self-governing, activated collectives that are directly responsive to member needs? Would a deployment of community in this sense, always recognizing its complexity, help commit us to a sense of the common good?

And — the $64,000 question — what would it take for us to actually get there?

In Revision

Yesterday morning, I closed comments on the open review of Generous Thinking. I’m enormously grateful to everyone who took the time to read and give me feedback on the project: 30 commenters left a total of 354 comments (and prompted 56 responses of my own). I have a good bit of insight into what’s working well and what needs improvement in the manuscript, and I’m excited about the possibilities ahead as I embark on the revision process.

Getting started on revising a piece of writing is always daunting for me. The draft feels complete, and it usually holds together and works as a thing, if imperfectly, and the beginning of the revision process almost always involves breaking that completeness, that thingness, in order to open it up and rethink how it works. I resist initially, not so much because I don’t think the thing could be better but because I worry that breaking it open will wind up making things worse, that I won’t be able to do the hard transformational work of putting it back together in a new way.

That initial leap, hard as it is, almost always pays off; once I get into the revision process I usually find myself excited by the patterns that I couldn’t see before, the new ways that ideas can be drawn together. But it’s still a leap, one that requires a deep breath (and a good cup of coffee) before diving in.

Thanks to everyone, again, who read and commented and linked to the draft. The discussion will remain up and available, if you’re curious about how it went, and the general comments remain open if you have further thoughts I should take into consideration. I’ll look forward to sharing some of my thoughts from the revision process as things proceed.

Moving Forward

For the last week, I have been less than a page away from finishing a draft of the chapter on reading (see the overview for more on that), but found myself unable to press forward. The reasons are all too evident: it suddenly felt way too precious to be writing about the transformative potential of reading in helping build a more empathetic, engaged relationship between the academy and the public sphere in the face of what still feels to me like the most colossal breakdown in not just empathy but the most basic forms of mutual recognition and comprehension in my lifetime.

But this morning I forced myself through it. Those last two paragraphs will likely be subject to serious revision, of course, as will much of what precedes them, as I need to take a few giant steps back from the project as a whole and make sure that it’s working toward the right goals, for the right reasons. I am beginning that process by turning my attention to research toward the chapter on listening, in the hope that it might help me not only push this project forward but also start shaping for myself a way of being in the world that we seem to have made.

My intent is to share some of that research as I go, though I have a lot to process — we all have a lot to process — and doing so in public feels more than a little dangerous right now. But it’s important, and I’m not going to let myself back down from this. I hope that you’ll be willing to join me.

Generous Thinking: Introduction

The text below is a revised version of a talk I gave at the University of Richmond this spring. It’s the first bit of writing toward my very much in-process project, Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good. I suspect that a modified version of it will wind up serving as an introduction to the larger project, but I’m early enough in this thing that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong about that entirely.

Responses are not simply welcome but strongly desired.

Continue reading “Generous Thinking: Introduction”

Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good

I have been working — painfully slowly, but nonetheless working — on a new project for something that is showing every sign of turning into a book. I’m still in the phase in which the thing is a bit hard to discuss, as I’m really figuring out what it’s all about on a day-to-day basis. But it finally occurred to me (another one of those “light dawns over Marblehead” moments that have characterized so much of my career thus far) that given the extent to which my last book argued for new scholarly practices including a willingness to show our process, blemishes and all, and given the extent to which the new project is all about the possibilities that might open up for scholars not just in doing more of their work in public but in doing more of that work in conversation with the public, well, I might take a bit of my own advice and open the thing up a bit.

Consider this the start of a conversation, a call in hope of response.

I’m beginning today with the project overview, below the fold. Later this week, I’ll post the first chunk of the project itself, derived from a talk I gave this spring at the University of Richmond. And I hope that more pieces will follow as I dig further into the guts of this thing. Those pieces are likely to be fragmentary, more question than answer — but then, that’s how some of the best conversations begin.

Continue reading “Generous Thinking: The University and the Public Good”