Last month graduate students from the English and History departments at Marquette University organized a day-long conference called “Oddities? : Exploring the Dynamics of Human Constructions.” Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth of Mount Mary University delivered the keynote address, which celebrated the critical ways in which the humanities have led human beings to wonder and to organize the world around them.
While many academics from Plato to Martha Nussbaum have penned arguments for the need and good of the humanities, there is still a resistance in some segments of society to these arguments. Perhaps the problem is that the humanities is considered (and often considers itself) to be a study of human cultures, thoughts, constructs—about language games and hegemonies and matrixes. And thus, some believe that the humanities are not about the real world. There is a problem that many outside and inside of the humanities believe these disciplines cannot help those in the “real” world because the humanities deal only with the “idea.” Yet, in defense of itself, the humanities can argue for its relevance by proclaiming how it treats oddities.
Oddities are things, structures, ideas and people that defy our fundamental categories of thought in ways that distress us. Oddities are those things that cause us so much trouble that we must cry out in order to name them as “freaks.” We cry out because the oddity is a problem that threatens our very structures of thought and all that we have built on the foundations of those structures. Oddities are terrifying and anxiety provoking because they show us that something is wrong in our thinking.
The platypus so bewildered English scientists that they proclaimed it a hoax for 100 years. Today the platypus continues to force zoologists to re-imagine the taxonomy of Carl Linnaeus. The platypus is an oddity. The body of the hermaphrodite has challenged the way culture categorizes the male and the female. Such a body troubles our deeply gendered worldview. It is an oddity. The existence of the mind of an intellectual woman has historically plunged individual women into despair and caused revolution in societies. It is still, too often, seen as an oddity.
The problem with oddities is that by being odd they crack our structures of thought. They cause despair because we recognize how little we know, how little we may ever know. In some ways, they undermine the possibility of progress and any argument about the merit of the academy.
Yet, here is my thesis. While oddities perplex society and cause despair about the relevance of trying to know anything with clarity, these very same oddities bear witness to the power of study, observing, thinking, analyzing, and discussing. The oddity that troubles our categories gives hope that there can be knowledge beyond cultural categories.
Yes, the humanities have worked hard to bring a humility to the academy and the public about the limits of human knowledge and the power of bias and hegemony. Yet, the humanities can still attest to the need for continued thinking by pointing to research on an oddity and to the cultural openness that results from such research. Research and writing on an oddity breaks the cultural contact lenses. It unstrings the web of belief. The reality of the oddity shines through the broken shards of the fallen hegemony. Importantly, the academy and the public must work together to find a new paradigm and social structure that acknowledges the oddity. Our communal knowledge grows and our society progresses.
Yes, growth in knowledge can change social and political reality as well. A little over one hundred years ago a group of School Sisters of Notre Dame decided to build a college for women in Wisconsin. While the United States did not grant women full citizenship or equal political and economic rights, the SSND believed that intellectual women were real. They asserted that women had the same rights and responsibilities to seek higher education as men. Moreover, they asserted the possibility of intellectual working class women as well. This view challenged dominant strains of thought about the potential of women and continues to challenge the dominant strains of thought about the potential of poor women. But the reality of the intellectual women that have graduated from Mount Mary University continues to tear at those strains of thought. And society slowly reforms.
This is my point. The oddity is unsettling. The first time we see an oddity, we often consider it a hoax. We try to stuff the oddity in a category, or we try to eliminate the oddity. But sometimes we do not succeed in snuffing out the oddness or the oddity. Rather sometimes we come to a new relationship with our old way of thinking, a new humility about our ways of seeing, and a new pride in our ability to see.
Thus, oddities suggest that the post-structuralists may be a little bit wrong. It may imply that any epistemology that considers the mind to be radically independent of matter may be wrong. Perhaps, we need an epistemology that considers the mind to be part of a relationship with matter itself and with Truth itself. But that is another topic for another paper.
For now, I only want to make the claim that we can see the platypus not just as fine pelt to put on the global market but as an oddity that simultaneously humbles zoo-ology and exalts the merit of study. Also, we see the intersex person, not just as sideshow object to exploit, but as a person whose needs require we re-think our medical practices, Olympic policies, and marriage laws. Finally, we recognize intellectual women, not just as workers in a global economy but as fellow members of the academy striving for progress in human knowledge. These changes, this progress, is due, at least in part, to the work of scholars in the humanities who have brought the platypus, the hermaphrodite and the intellectual woman into focus. In short, studying an oddity inspires us to keep looking to see what else we can see. Every oddity that perplexes also whispers: keep studying, keep writing, keep reading, keep thinking. There is so much more to know.
In conclusion, I recently attended a lecture by the Reverend Dr. Willie Jennings, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, on the role of the academic in public life. Jennings, the author of the acclaimed The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, said the role of the intellectual in public life is to “exhibit an openness to being changed and to invite others to this openness to being changed. To embody a posture, and to model this posture of openness.” (Willie James Jennings. “The Public Vocation of the Religious Scholar.” Upper Midwest Regional Meeting at Luther Seminary. Saint Paul, MN. April 17.) One way to model such openness is to look for and embrace the oddity that defies our previous structures.
Jennifer Hockenbery Dragseth is professor of Philosophy at Mount Mary University. She is editor of The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition (2011) and author of the forthcoming Thinking Woman: A Philosophical Exploration into the Quandary of Gender. For more, go to http://www.mtmary.edu/majors-programs/schools/hsse/jennifer-hockenbery.html.