A Professor Questions the Dominant Ideas in Her Discipline

July 2, 2019

In her new book, Professor Kandice Chuh challenges the "liberal humanities" and examines the ways that popular perceptions trump truth.

Kandice Chuh faculty

Kandice Chuh

In casual conversation, the word “aesthetics” usually refers to visual appearance. If something’s aesthetically pleasing, it looks nice. But aesthetics also has a “broader meaning,” according to Professor Kandice Chuh (English), who used the term in the title of her recent book, The Difference Aesthetics Makes: On the Humanities ‘After Man.’ Chuh says the original definition of aesthetics refers to perception and the senses, “and how our body feels something to be true. … It goes back to understanding that the education we receive, the institutions we value as a society, are all shaping our gut reactions to ideas.” 
But what happens when our perceptions or reactions contradict the facts? Chuh says she’s been “thinking a lot” about the contrast between factual reality and what people perceive as true at a time when so many Americans, from the president on down, assert “the truthfulness of something” even when it’s contradicted by “empirical reality.” 

Chuh’s book explores the ways in which our aesthetics and sensibilities have been shaped by “bourgeois liberal humanism,” which has long been critiqued for bolstering racism, strictures of gender, colonialism, and capitalism. Traditional liberal solutions — multiculturalism, diversity, sympathy, guilt — won’t create the “structural change” necessary to upend “this reigning humanism,” she writes. What’s needed, she says, are “illiberal humanisms” to “work against” the ways that traditional “arrangements of knowledge” make “the histories of violent subjugation … beautiful, reasonable, and acceptable.”  

Chuh begins her role as the executive officer of The Graduate Center’s English program this fall, and she’s particularly interested in encouraging viewpoints that “haven’t been the dominant voices” up until now. “That’s where the most interesting ideas are coming from, the most unusual ways of relating to the world, because it has the effect of defamiliarizing us,” she said. “Those are the people whom I find to be the most intellectually vibrant and the best parts of being in the academy.”

She doesn’t shy away from the challenges of running a Ph.D. program at a time when the humanities are under attack and university teaching jobs scarce — though she does believe that the problems doctoral students face are “not an individual thing. There’s something much bigger in the political and economic landscape that’s shifting.” 

But she does want students to think carefully about their futures before committing to a Ph.D. program. She acknowledges the professional leap of faith that doctoral students take. She adds, though, that “if you are a person who is able to take that risk, then one of the great things that CUNY does well, is to keep open those spaces for those for whom it is more risky, who don’t have lots of family resources, who are  first-generation college students, or first-generation graduate students.”
Chuh says an “exit strategy” can also be valuable — an idea she’s borrowed from University California Irvine Professor Laura Kang. “When the academy stops working, we can leave … We don’t have to be stuck here. But that doesn’t mean that the kind of work we do in thinking hard, collectively, in a room where you’re putting ideas out and making yourselves vulnerable, is not useful.”