The One and the Many

In many ways, research interests are simple: what is the relationship between the one and the many?  the particular and the general?  the singular and the shared?

Of course, the two forms that dominate my dissertation – realism and history – are all about this relationship.   I suggest that every theory of realism, however different, makes an argument about how to relate the particular and the general, the individual and the collective.  As Alex Woloch eloquently (and persuasively!) argues: realism is all about the tension between the one (the characters with psychological depth) and the many (the minor characters who create a social world, represent the historical milieu).   For Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth and Benedict Anderson, realism represents distinct individuals in shared (national, historical) spaces – it reconciles the one and the many – through shared, homogeneous time.  For Nancy Armstrong, realism emerges from contradiction and struggle between the many (collectives – usually infused with the gothic) and the individual to produce the individual subject.  Eagleton objects to realism precisely because it privileges the individual over the collective, creating the moral ‘one’ rather than the political ‘many.’

In turn, history depends upon generalization.  While English scholars close-read forms, historians create them.  They shape individual stories, reveal causal connections, and illuminate periods, epochs, eras.  These forms don’t always represent individual experiences – as Subaltern Studies reveals, they often actively silence particular people, eschew certain kinds of historical explanations and obscure specific types of experience.

How do we show differences and still make generalizations?  How do we highlight the tension between the one and the many without dissolving history into endless difference?  How do we create forms that don’t silence, colonize, or reproduce a relatively conservative politics of ‘growth,’ ‘development,’ ‘moral improvement’?  How do we create worlds without making people, forms, modes representative (static, closed, fixed)?

Now, as I think more and more about public humanities, similar questions emerge.  But in the context of the public humanities there even more confused, because there isn’t even a “one” there is simply “the many.”  The public is heterogeneous, but so to is “humanities” – especially when we think about humanities as institutionally located in specific universities. The one, I suppose, is the very concept of “public humanities” – the many is the actual constituents involved in creating, practicing, engaging with public humanities.



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