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Updated Up To 23/01/2018
Volume 1, Number 1 (January 2003) : 1-33
Context-Sensitivity and Its Feedback
The Two-Sidedness of Humanistic Discourse
Wolfgang Iser (1926--2007)
Rubric A: History of Humanities
Rubric B: Then and Now



The term “humanistic discourse” designates a dual operation: on the one hand, it views the function of the humanities from a contextual perspective, and on the other it feeds its assessment back into these contextual realities. This two-sidedness is a hallmark of humanistic discourse, which is meant not only to grasp the significance of its subject matters, such as literature and the arts, from a stance outside themselves, but also to channel this into what originally conditioned the viewing. Humanistic discourse becomes an interface between contextual realities and humanistic subject matters. Contextual realities provide frames, thus setting parameters for the humanistic discourse through which literature and the arts are conceived. The nation-state and personality formation (Bildung) were prominent frames in Western culture, whereas currently we witness a large-scale politicizing of the humanities. The oppositional discourses thus evolving do not call themselves “humanistic” any longer, as such a label represents what they are fighting against. However, the function of these discourses remains the same; it is still an interface between a frame, i.e. politics, and what is left of humanistic subject matter. There is still the canon as a frame, although it has changed its status: it is no longer considered as an assembly of canonical authors but is seen as cultural capital which is either coveted by different groups or augmented by elevating the literary products of minorities to canonical status. Recently the “market” has become a new frame, and what the latter demands is “cultural competence,” not least, as globalization requires an expertise in foreign cultures on a great many levels. The burgeoning “area studies” try to meet such a demand; the humanities are thus confronted with the task of utilizing the knowledge produced in order to intervene in social life. As to their future, frames are not as stable as they used to be in the past. Humanistic discourse may not be able to establish frames, but will still link up with a world outside literature and the arts by charting the extent to which the world of archives may counterbalance the losses incurred by a scientifically-based culture. For this reason, humanistic discourse has to undergo another change of self-definition, as it has done ever since it entered the stage. Changing self-definitions are an essential feature of the quest for validity.

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