Interview with Doris Sommer

Doris Sommer is Founder of Cultural Agents, an NGO dedicated to civic development through the arts, and the Ira and Jewell Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and of African and African American Studies. She is leading this year’s seminar, “The Arts of Agency,” and I sat down with her to ask her about her thoughts on the themes of the 2017 Mellon School, Research, Pedagogy, Activism.

AWN: One of the things that I admire about your work is the style and readability of your writing, and the fact that it crosses disciplinary boundaries. I was curious about what place you see writing occupying in the academy. How should humanists be thinking about their own writing?

DS: I thought Martin [Puchner] began the public lecture series with a great response to that, and that is, if people are not writing beautifully they’re not being politically effective. The Communist Manifesto was successful, with a delay, but successful, and continues to be an important document, because it’s beautifully written. The example that I brought very briefly was the Declaration of Independence. And it’s not only written beautifully but it’s really cagey. It already makes the move that it said it had been announcing. There’s a way that writing distills thinking and then produces more thinking. So if we don’t take that as a primary art inside the academy we’re missing a cue.

AWN: When you say the Declaration of Independence was “cagey,” what do you mean?

[In the lecture], I read the second paragraph aloud, [which states, “when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, …a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”]. It is a speech act that is a kind of future perfect. So it’s already there by having said it.

AWN: What about the question of audience, because I’m always curious about who people are writing for. How would you characterize the audience of a writer who is working in the Humanities?

The best writers who are working in the humanities are easy to understand. I think that one of the reasons that Freud is still a presence, whether people think he’s a scientist or not, is because he made really subtle and radical ideas easy to understand. One of my favorite models here at Harvard, which is full of great models, is Danielle Allen, who is not only a political scientist but has a doctorate in Classics as well. She has very important books, not only because they are smart books but because they are easy to read. She has a book on the Declaration of Independence, and it’s called Our Declaration. One of her first paragraphs is about the importance of writing for participating in the community. But I also think it’s a reflection on her own writing and is a model for other academics who know that they could distill difficult ideas in pretty accessible language.

AWN: This is also the example of a writer who is bridging institutional divides, trained in Classics, but also working in Political Science. And we know from your work that you’ve created partnerships across the University. So for someone feeling siloed in a department, what would you suggests that person do to start to bridge divides? 

DS: One thing that I want to say before I answer [the question] is that we need to be developing a language that is easily understandable and shared. We need to be playing with definitions that we can all acknowledge. Part of the complaint of people outside the humanities is that humanists spin difficult words and don’t bother explaining them. So it’s as if we don’t want partners. One way to say we do want partners is to make our words simple and clear, even when we make them up. A word like a “play drive” is immediately understandable, although it’s a bold neologism. So we can thank Schiller for being charming. That’s part of my delight in Pre-Texts [a teacher training program in Literacy, Innovation, and Citizenship]. We can enjoy very sophisticated literary concepts by playing with scraps of paper.

In terms of making alliances, it turns out that they’re much easier to make than anyone would have expected. Because people in engineering, in law, in business, in the Kennedy School [of Government], in health, they’re all looking for humanists. They all want to play with us, and we’re not coming out of the silo.

AWN: When you say that people working in these fields are looking for humanists, in what ways do you mean?

DS: They are noticing that without training in the pleasure of doubt, in thinking counterfactually, in persuasive, not to say seductive, communication, their missions find roadblocks. Human society, human life is always on the move. And if you’re not prepared to make new moves, you stay stuck. If people don’t know how to think out of the box, we’re not producing new things. We’re perfecting things that already exist but don’t interest anybody; we don’t know how to tap into a desire for a new adaptation of something.

You need that sensitivity and that joy in taking risks. Gramsci calls it “leap of faith.” He doesn’t know what to do with religion because he feels religion has been a terrible opiate, but people are religious and at least they know what spiritual energy means. In a world that’s disenchanted through a Calvinist work ethic, and here he’s referring to Weber, there’s no energy for change. So it’s that spiritual capacity, that leap of faith, that thinking against the grain, that being bored by right answers because you want five more, that humanists cultivate.

AWN: Thinking about being on the move, you’re coming from work in Latin American literature but have also taken Pre-Texts and other collaborations to many places around the world. What kinds of challenges and opportunities do different cultural settings offer?

DS: I am not a student in any professional way of theater, but I am a disciple of Augusto Boal. I like to share the lessons that I learned from him because I find them very useful, and I can generate a protocol that’s about as simple as his protocol for Forum Theater to teach at very high levels. That’s what Pre-Texts is, and it doesn’t matter where we are. Boal taught us that. He could be in complicated urban schools, he could be in desert areas, he could be in one language, in another language, and the protocol is stable because it’s empty. You go to a group of people and you ask them what their problem is. You don’t gear them towards class analysis, towards ecological degradation, you don’t have any content. You say ‘what is your problem.’ And they will tell you. Then when they talk together and feel supported by being accompanied, and generate a skill out of their tragedy, what have you brought to the area but the invitation? My favorite slogan about Pre-Texts is “work less, achieve more”.

AWN: So it’s a form (and Forum!) that you’re offering.

DS: One thing that we learn as humanists is that in the tension between form and content, pay more attention to form. Free yourselves from the shackles of content, that’s going to change. When Levinas talks about ethics through communication, he says communication is basically about the act of speaking and what is spoken. Form and content. He says the ethical part of communication is the act. It’s talking to each other. It doesn’t matter what you talk about. I’m exaggerating. But the fact that you’re talking together, and this is where Kant’s aesthetics becomes his politics, the fact that we can talk eye-to-eye about something that has no interest for us, something that gives us pleasure and we don’t really understand why because it’s new and we have to talk about it because we have doubt, there’s no hierarchy in that conversation. It’s the talking together, not about something, that’s the ethics.  So that’s my roundabout answer to what do we do with moving around a lot, and the complexity of context. It’s knowing that we’re prepared with an empty and enabling form.

**Interview edited for length**