A recent article in The New Yorker pointedly asked what the humanities should do in a crisis[i]. Similarly, in our own humanities group we have had many conversations of late about the meaning of what we are doing against a dramatic backdrop of illness and calamity. At a time when colleagues across the world – not just at the Press, but within all the institutions with which we cooperate: whether universities, colleges, libraries or other agencies of higher education – are working remotely or furloughed, what value do the verses of Sappho or insights of Socrates have when people in real time are struggling to keep well, put food on the table and pay the rent; or when, at the frontline of the battle against COVID-19, health workers are literally and every day putting their lives on the line?
Even before the contagion, many questioned the current value of humanistic scholarship. But the coronavirus and its challenges of immediacy and societal survival have thrown into sharp relief the apparent disjuncture between contemplation of literature, for example, and the exigencies of a society in the grip of a pestilence. When the difference between life and death is measured in terms of the distribution of enough ventilators in hospitals, or adequate personal protective equipment, should we even be talking about characterisation in Shakespeare, metre in Emily Dickinson or plotlines in the fiction of Toni Morrison and Flannery O’Connor? It is right and proper to ask these questions, and right too to give primacy to what is needful for people to survive the present emergency. But it is also true that contemplation of the world’s rich store of humanistic wisdom offers value in a different sense from immediate necessity. A moment of crisis helps us to see that we live out our lives perpetually threatened by casualty and uncertainty; and that, collectively, the humanities have always tried – perhaps with greatest clarity when grappling with issues of race and gender, or matters of social and climate justice – not just to make sense of the world, but also make it a better and more habitable place. If ever there were a time for reflection on how to make things healthier in the longer term it would seem to be now, in the grip and then aftermath of pandemic.
Cambridge University Press has likewise always done its best to ask larger questions about meaning and value, whether in the humanities or across its scholarly publishing at large. Our authors are our best resource, and a great many of them are wrestling afresh with how best to apply their knowledge to a fast-moving and volatile situation where people are having to find new ways of staying connected and engaged. Discussions with academic colleagues across the Press – and outside of my own humanities group – about how best to harness this expertise, and put it to best use, have revealed how much pride we feel in our authors and how much we want to share their perspectives on the upheaval with as wide a readership as possible. Yes, the humanities are fundamental here. There are apposite connections to be made, for example, between what is happening now and the plagues which swept the ancient world; or how citizens in antiquity responded to the challenges of famine and food production; or, again, how a society under siege looks after its most vulnerable people when resources are scarce. But there is very much more to be said and asked about what scholarship can bring, from across the social sciences, and also from STM: to questions about air pollution and security, for example; or the politics of class and inequality (which incarceration has done so much to underline); or the manufacture of PPE and engineering of new technologies and infrastructure like 5G; or how star-gazing and astronomy might bring solace and a sense of perspective to those experiencing the challenges and frustrations of lockdown.
Because our publishing has always at its heart been about outreach and education in the broadest sense, we wish therefore to make some of our authors’ keenest insights available in the form of short blogs, or opinion pieces, which we will be distributing regularly across a variety of platforms. These pieces will reflect in broad terms on the context and challenges of the pandemic while also attempting to generate both appropriate humanistic reflection as well as practical response: the essence, in fact, of what our academic publishing amounts to – being, as well as doing – and what we feel it best represents: that is, combining timely broad-brush meditation with attention to the specificity of where we are now. The aim of these pieces will be to provide a resource in times of need: crystalline, bite-sized chunks – digestible nuggets of reflection – which can be drawn upon anywhere where someone has access to the internet. Our hope is that this new digital library of concise contemplations will prove, above all, to be diverting and engaging – even consoling. That it will provide, at a critical moment, a reliable repository – gratis, and easily and immediately available – of the acme of what academic endeavour and enterprise, in extremis, can offer. But also that it will point to helpful and creative ways of managing and responding to the impact of COVID-19 from the perspectives of those who, from a range of disciplines, have already reflected deeply on what it means to be a human being, and what the consequences of being human really are when people are called upon to understand the true meanings of fragility, loss, impermanence and community.
[i] Agnes Callard, ‘What Do the Humanities Do in a Crisis?’, The New Yorker, April 11 2020