The Nomadic Humanities

Kyrgyz nomads, 2011

“Act so that there is no use in a center. A wide action is not a width. A preparation is given to the ones preparing. They do not eat who mention silver and sweet.”

— Gertrude Stein, “Rooms,” Tender Buttons (1914)


IN 1983, Edward Said published his influential essay “Travelling Theory.” He is thinking about the circulation of ideas and theories and their fateful changes at journey’s end when they may be transplanted into new soil. Gaze upon what happened when 19th-century Europe imported “so-called Eastern ideas about transcendence.” He proposes that we look at four stages in the life of a traveling theory: its point of origin; the distance it transverses; whether it is accepted or resisted; and finally, if accepted, how it is accommodated, incorporated, or, possibly, “transformed.” Then, fully aware of the magnitude of his challenge, he asks for the “mapping” of “all the territory covered by all the techniques of dissemination, communication, and interpretation.”

Like all of Said’s work, this essay both inspired academic explorations and pointed to even larger issues. One, most obviously, is travel, whether it carries the cares of immigration or provides a carefree escape on a bucket-list holiday. Travel deeply engages people inside and outside of the academy. For all, the simplest of physical journeys carries multiple meanings, but one activity in the restless, uncountable panoply of intersecting human movements, motilities, metamorphoses, changes, and counter-changes. Among them: The synaptic relays of the nervous system; the flux and flow of ideas, ramped up with every new technology of communication; tourism; commercial ventures; and, far less happily, exile; mass migrations; ferocious, forced dispersions and diasporas. Only the most constricted of sensibilities can ignore the narratives of birds and whales; wandering monks in China and India; Sinbad the Sailor; the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria; the Mayflower; the slave ships of the Middle Passage; satellites and spacecraft; and the boats, organized by smugglers — those “travel agents of death” (a phrase I first heard on NPR last year) — packed with refugees from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

Given this ever-burgeoning, restless universe, perhaps all intellectual pursuits should be considered Interdisciplinary Mobility Studies. For the humanities, I would like to propose instead a more narrow rubric and focus: the “Nomadic Humanities.” My definition of the humanities is conventional enough, following Helen Small in The Value of the Humanities (2013): the “study of the meaning-making practices of human culture, past and present, focusing on interpretation and critical evaluation.” I use “nomadic” in part to signify a large historical pattern of movement that built intricate relations among the natural and social worlds. [1] Traditionally, the nomad is a member of a pastoral group that goes from place to place in search of pasture. The origins of the theory of the nomad are often assigned to the 14th-century Arab jurist, writer, political figure, and teacher, Ibn Khaldûn (1332–1406) and his picture of the relations between “Bedouin civilization” and “sedentary people.” [2] The ways of life of these traditional nomads are vanishing. A compelling 2007 Jordanian documentary, produced and directed by Majida Kabariti, features a strong-faced, nimble woman, grazing her goats near Petra, responding to the seasons, refusing to live in a concrete house with a TV satellite dish and other modern conveniences. Its title? Torfa: Last of the Nomadic Bedouins. Simultaneously, in China, the government is “settling” millions of former pastoralists, herders of yaks and sheep, into small villages. Official propaganda exults that the relocation policies are “like the warm spring breeze that brightens the grassland in green and reaches into the herders’ hearts.”

The changes in the nomadic way of life, despite the blessings of these breezes, exemplifies the often-enforced motilities of life, here a diminishment of them. Of course, “diminishment” is far too bland and bowdlerized a word. Colonial and national powers murdered and decimated the nomads of North America and Australia. Ironically, the changes in the concept of “nomad” demonstrate an expansion. “Nomad” now represents the fourth stage of Said’s typology. It has been accommodated, incorporated, transformed, and cannibalized.

Most closely related to the nomadic search for pasturage, the modern nomad now travels in search of work. Some of it is rough and badly paid, if paid at all — in construction, in agriculture, in domestic or sexual services. If work is found, some money can flow back to a worker’s family “at home” through various global financial routes. With only brief vacations, if any at all, the worker can live in a labor camp, or dormitory, or employer-supplied apartment. Their conditions can vary from brute minimalism to adequate.

Less close to the bare bones of material existence, other nomadic workers are higher up on the class scale — military contractors, or religious missionaries, or teachers, or expats in a global bank. Gloria Steinem, in her autobiography about being an itinerant feminist organizer, calls herself a “modern nomad.” More jauntily, other self-described nomads are explorers. Some may be students on a “gap year” or a post-baccalaureate toot. Some may be older. These nomads use jet planes, tour buses, and mules to wander from adventure to adventure, sensation to sensation, toting a backpack, an iPad for blogging, and possibly some Cipro. James Clifford describes such nomads as “post-modern primitivist” figures. Even more sloppily defined, the “nomad” is now simply on the go, moving out and around. In my New York, the NoMad Hotel, which is also an abbreviation for a location North of Madison Avenue, sleeps and feeds affluent tourists. Two DJs, after “six years of giving nomadic parties across Brooklyn,” find “a permanent, albeit seasonal, outdoor home in Ridgewood, Queens.” Google “Nomadology” and see how inadvertently generous pastoral peoples have been by contributing a now exotic and glamorous name to a linguistically and culturally voracious present.

“The Nomadic Humanities” can do justice to nomadic cultures, their histories, and the shifting meanings that individuals and cultures have made of them. Even more spaciously, the nomadic humanities can take up the processes and meanings of all our intricate, terrifying, interconnected, and beautiful movements — as they are rendered in the arts (music, literature, visual arts, film, performance, dance), letters, history, anthropology, languages, the medical humanities, and sciences — and the moral gyroscopes people devise to guide them through it all. To allude to my epigraph from Gertrude Stein, the stresses of study fall on verbs rather than nouns. Never before, I believe, have people been so aware of the causes, effects, and entanglements of movements — of bodies, bacteria, languages, landscapes, individuals, groups, networks, and ideas. Never before have people and their dwellings, doings, and structures been so complexly volatile. Crucially, never before have we been so aware of the abilities of the powerful to restrict and clamp down on movement. Barbed wire fences, tyrannical checkpoints, refugee camps that become huge settlements: all immobilize individuals and populations. [3] It is as if a stammering picaresque had grotesquely become our dominant genre. The Nomadic Humanities maps all our motions, their crossings, combinings, blockages, and erasures.

The nomadic humanities might, for example, have the nerve to expand Said’s four stages of a traveling theory and take on that challenge of historically mapping all the territory of “dissemination, communication, and interpretation.” I lack that nerve, so I’m wimping out. I have instead three test cases, or proofs of concept, of a nomadic humanities. Two are more theoretical, proposing a meaningful way of being in the world. The first is a perhaps idiosyncratic reading of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, published in 1916. Like a few others, I believe that Dewey is relevant to the humanities as well as to science, social science, and education. The second is Rosi Braidotti’s contemporary dramatization of the “nomadic subject.” The third test case is J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), with its nomadic characters.

deweyThese texts differ from each other in genre, worldview, and context. Take, for example, their attitudes toward Freud, that mover and shaker of the self. Born in 1856, he was Dewey’s contemporary; however, they were neither friends nor colleagues. Born in 1940, the year after Freud’s death, Coetzee speaks of that “skilled Viennese dream-interpreter, Sigmund Freud.” In his hands, one’s dreams will “reveal all kinds of embarrassing things about you.” Born a generation later in 1954, Braidotti regards Freud as a master teacher. In her 2011 book Nomadic Theory, she praises his 1927 essay The Future of An Illusion as a classic argument against both the “national, delusional aspects of religious faith” and the fanaticism of some in the scientific community. The presence of such differences in time, space, and cultural personality is a symptom of how jarring it might be to travel among them, but how necessary it is for the nomadic humanities to do so, despite the slippages, open crevasses, and rocky climbs of inquiry.


I. John Dewey, The Perpetual Transitions Between Being Settled and Unsettled [4]

John Dewey was a great and good man, always moving toward a different future. He was born in 1859 in Burlington, Vermont, as the Civil War was about to commence in the United States. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species and Marx A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Dewey was to adapt the former; he came to doubt the Marxist/Leninist theory and the Soviet government. His father was a grocer, but Dewey’s obituary in The New York Times uses the more upscale term “merchant.” His mother, a Calvinist, was the daughter of an affluent farmer. He was eventually to abandon her pieties. Both parents were from well-established, non-indigenous American families. He was educated in Burlington and took his baccalaureate at the small state university there, not at a private Harvard or Yale. After teaching school for two years, and being privately tutored in philosophy, he entered Johns Hopkins University. Founded in 1876 as the first graduate school in the United States, it was an innovation. After he got his PhD in 1884, he first taught at the University of Michigan, where he met his first wife, Harriet Alice Chipman. She was a junior, a major in philosophy, independent, a feminist, planning to become a teacher. He was very much in love with her.

In 1894, they went to Chicago to be at the University of Chicago, where he started the legendary University Elementary School or the Lab School. He befriended Jane Addams, the co-founder of the pioneering settlement house Hull House. After a struggle with the far testier and more authoritarian president of the University of Chicago, the Deweys moved to New York in 1905, he to serve at Teachers College and Columbia University. In New York, he detached himself from the actual creation and administration of schools, while always thinking, writing, and lecturing about philosophy, psychology, education, art, public affairs, and the public good.

Together, his causes form a history of 20th-century liberalism and progressivism. “His experience,” biographer Jay Martin writes, “gave him a special empathy for the second-best, the second-class citizen, the loser in society.” His New York Times obituary also declared, “with the courage of a crusader, [he] was willing to lend his name and reputation to causes that were frowned upon by staid society.” He campaigned for women’s suffrage. He helped to create the New School and the American Association of University Professors, whose first president he was. After World War I, he was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and supported labor movements. He traveled tirelessly — to England, Europe, Japan, China, Turkey, the Soviet Union, Mexico. In the midst of these activities, Chipman died in 1927, leaving Dewey and five surviving children. He went on. In the early 1930s, Dewey feared Hitler before many did, and later during World War II, he opposed the herding of Japanese Americans into camps. Toward the end of his life, he was organizing a third political party, the “People’s Lobby.”

Dewey was also an early member of the NAACP. Yet a saddening and maddening feature about Democracy and Education is its comparative silence about race and systemic racism. He fails to distinguish between “voluntary immigrants and people incorporated by slavery or conquest.” Eddie S. Glaude Jr, who published In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America in 2007, mourns Dewey’s inattentiveness to racism in his big philosophical work. Reading Democracy and Education causes yet another cataract of cautions about the dangers of racial myopia for the benignly progressive. (See articles in Culture and Education by Leonard J. Waks [2007] and Sam F. Stack Jr. [2009].) However, Glaude also goes on to argue, persuasively and eloquently, that we can nevertheless use pragmatism and Dewey in the shaping of black politics, the deepening of our sense of tragedy, and the risky striving for democracy.

Before Dewey died in New York City in 1952, he again married, not entirely happily, and was father of two adopted children. He is buried at the University of Vermont. He was civil in demeanor, forthright, brave, honest, responsive to human needs, unstoppable while alive. His Collected Works add up to 37 volumes. In primary school, in Bellingham, Washington, I was taught by an outpost of Deweyites. Learning — be it the interconnected activities of writing and typing, or doing fractions and building a tepee — was a marvelous stretch. Recently, as I have read Democracy and Education, it has seemed both distant and immediately familiar, both pulling decades apart and pushing them together. This temporal mash-up derives from the vividness of my memories of my formative years and the fact that so much of the contemporary thinking about education — critical thinking, for example — streams from Dewey’s pages.

Although I cannot find the word “nomad” in Democracy and Education, its prophetic contribution to the nomadic humanities first arises from the concept of thinking that he made his own from his reading of philosophical traditions, the then new American Pragmatism, and his lab. Thinking is energetic, starting “from doubt or uncertainty. It marks an inquiring […] searching attitude […] instead of one of mastery and possession.” In brief, we hunt and gather information. Through such a “critical process,” knowledge is changed, reorganized — in brief, unsettled. The purpose of change is to make progress, to construct a better society, to find and cultivate more sustaining and sustainable fields.

Two related passages are crucial for the mindfulness of the nomadic humanities. One is about the purpose of thinking: to propel us forward.

While all thinking results in knowledge, ultimately the value of knowledge is subordinate to its use in thinking. For we live not in a settled and finished world, but in one which is going on, and where our main task is prospective, and where retrospect — and all knowledge as distinct from thought is retrospect — is of value in the solidity, security, and fertility it affords our dealings with the future.

The second is about the nature of the thinking mind. “What is mind?” Dewey asks in Democracy and Education. It is a “capacity,” being able “to refer present conditions to future results, and future consequences to present conditions.” Because of mind, we can act intelligently, consciously, with an aim or purpose. We can test and experiment with our lives, engage with them, partake of them. We are “not like an automatic machine.” No wonder that this great experimentalist owned books by Gertrude Stein, that most radical of literary modernists, with her injunction to begin again and again.

Thinking and doing, mind and body, are then experientially inseparable. Alack and alas, Dewey scolds, academic philosophers have neglected or lost the ability to connect knowledge and action. Fortunately, they are not the only font of wisdom. “Wisdom,” Dewey declares, “has never lost its association with the proper direction of life. Only in education, never in the life of a farmer, sailor, merchant, physician, or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing.” Electrifying the alliance of thinking and doing, giving it a pulse, is the imagination. It differs from the imaginary, although Dewey, no philistine, supported literature and the fine arts and asserted that one might assign them intrinsic value. The imagination seems to be affective and empathetic and sensuous. It keeps us from being chilly thinking-doing machines. It is, Dewey writes, “the medium of appreciation in every field. The engagement of the imagination is the only thing that makes any activity more than mechanical […] a warm and intimate taking in of the full scope of a situation.” It helps us achieve a life of “rich significance.”

Thinking, acting, imagining: We do this with each other. Dewey is aware of how diverse societies are within themselves and among each other. “In many modern states and in some ancient,” he writes, “there is a great diversity of populations, of varying languages, religions, moral codes, and traditions.” Yet we cannot wander aimlessly or indifferently away from each other. Indeed, people are more and more in touch with each other — because of such causes as migration, new modes of transportation, modern commerce, and, tragically, war. As a result, we need a “measure” for the worth of any given mode of social life.

For Dewey, that measure is “many interests consciously communicated and shared; […] varied and free points of contact with other modes of association.” Communicating itself enables the species to survive and thrive. He states succinctly, “Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but […] in transmission, in communication.” In a contemporary idiom, growth demands a global multiculturalism with differing, but networked, perspectives that enrich each other. Schools, though they may not bring all different groups together, are a model of communication and a source of mobility (that invaluable American dream). They must steady and integrate our differences, not in a blob, but in a pluralistic society.

To this, Dewey adds moral and political axioms. Morally, Dewey values behaving with kindness, conscientiousness or regard for others, generosity, and the capacity for development, for traveling toward new horizons that we learn to share. Such are the ethical protocols of vitality, growth, and sociability. Politically, he argues for democracy. Dewey was adamant that a workable society could not have two classes: master and subject. Louis Menand, in his history of the first generation of American pragmatism, writes that Dewey hated hierarchy. Democracy and Education is angry at intellectuals, particularly at the philosopher Aristotle, for giving the joys of “reason” to the powerful classes while assigning the labor of serving them to slaves, women, and artisans. Democracy is a non-commercial, equitable exchange. It is, Dewey writes, “more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” Not for Dewey, the founder of organizations and institutions, the lonely aches of modernism, the blarings and bleatings and sorrows of the ego. While he treasures the individual, we are, like nomadic groups, in this life together.

Dewey is acerbic about two viruses that feed on societies and infect thinking, imagining, communicating, and educating. One is the rigid division of life into dualities (binary oppositions in much contemporary theory) — between thinking and doing, mind and body, master and servant, us and them. He is deeply informed about philosophy and culture, and when he is scathing about the uselessness of the traditional liberal arts, he speaks as a disappointed insider. They are divided in linked binaries between a privileged class and an exploited class, between theory and practice, between the world of the mind and of things, between the fine and industrial arts. (On these points, see also works by Thomas M. Alexander, Charles Hobbs, Mary Leach, and David Hansen.)

This duality manufactures lousy, undemocratic educational systems that replicate it, splits between activities and a barren subject matter, the reign of the School Master; between “educative teaching,” in which the student is a partner in a shared activity, and “training,” in which a student is machine tooled; between liberal education for the few and practical education for the many — or, as Dewey writes scornfully, between a “utilitarian” course of study for the masses and higher learning for a mandarin class, “a specialized cultivated class.” Today, the prescient Dewey might evoke other figures as distressing as the School Master. One would be the Test Master, who reduces all educational “outcomes” to test scores; another would be the STEM Master, who cannot see beyond the STEM disciplines, crucial though they are; still another would be the Vocational Ed Master, who supports education only if it has direct economic applications — for example, the erstwhile 2016 United States presidential candidate who declared that the United States needs welders, not philosophers.

Dewey would respond sharply that the welder should do philosophy, the philosopher welding. They can improve each other. He despises tracking, slotting individuals into “definite industrial callings.” In a democracy, all citizens are adaptive, nimble, critical thinkers. All participate in the give and take of constructing society. All “must share in useful service and all enjoy a worthy leisure.” Moreover, he writes (with a tart yet prophetic realism, as if he were anticipating Silicon Valley), industry changes so quickly that you cannot train a student for one static niche. “New industries spring up, and old ones are revolutionized.”

The second virus is an excess of habit, which hardens into prejudice. Slouching along in a cognitive and psychological rut, favoring the routine and the rote, being stick-in-the-muds rather than rovers and roamers, we lose the open road as well as an open mind. We lack interest in the novel, the fresh, the original, in plasticity and freedom. Dewey writes,

Fixity of habit may mean that something has a fixed hold on us, instead of our having a free hold upon things. […] Habits reduce themselves to routine ways of acting, or degenerate into ways of action to which we are enslaved just in the degree in which intelligence is disconnected from them. […] The instinctively mobile and eagerly varying actions of childhood, the love of new stimuli and new developments, too easily passes into a “settling down” […]

We fear change, progress, the “uncertain and the unknown.”

One hears a resonant echo of Dewey in Richard Rorty’s call for the unleashing of humanists from bureaucracy. Rorty (1931–2007), the American pragmatist, called for all humanists, including those in academic departments, to be “humanistic intellectuals.” They “read books in order to enlarge their sense of what is possible and important — either for themselves as individuals or for their society.” The administrators of the humanities — philosophers of education, well-intended committees, government agencies — might try to tidy their charges up, name them, define them, manage them. What well-meaning folly. The humanities must change, like life itself. With academic freedom, they will change creatively, and “remain indefinable and unmanageable.”

Dewey then proposes a systematic curriculum and a pedagogy for a democratic society. Consistent with his belief in interactivity among people and their practices, he dislikes occupational and disciplinary divisions. He calls them “pigeon-holed interests” clamoring for attention. Today, we call them “silos.” Our task within the schools and without is to integrate them. Is it unreasonable, he asks, that the “pursuit of business should be itself a culture of the imagination?” He wants us to be interdisciplinary, though this is a term he does not use, and focuses on three of the areas to be linked: history, geography, and science.

Dewey admires classical learning, and wants it taught, but his humanities cannot be reduced to classical languages. Far sighted though he could be, he did not anticipate the reduction of Greek and Latin itself in contemporary Western education and the need for most “humane studies” in the West to fight for them. He also praises the history of art and literature as a universally accessible source of celebration of human “struggles, triumphs, and defeats.” In general, the past must be usable. We value the past by showing the generative alliances of past and present. “Knowledge is humanistic in quality not because it is about human products in the past, but because of what it does in liberating human intelligence and human sympathy.” If we connect past and present, history permits us to “place our own doings in their time and space connections,” and when we do so, our doings gain in “significant content.” We are not merely creatures of the moment, but of “enduring substance.” The grand obligation is to unite the enduring and the momentary progressively. History helps us make meaning.

Economic history, then being established and which the humanities have ignored, shows the things that “fundamentally concern all men in common — the occupations and values connected with getting a living.” (Dewey was a friend and collaborator of Charles and Mary Beard, and other new economic historians.) How are grocers and farmers historical actors? Economic history, he writes, is “more human, more democratic, and hence more liberalizing than political history. It deals not with the rise and fall of principalities and powers, but with the growth of the effective liberties, through command of nature, of the common man for whom powers and principalities exist.” Admirable though it is, Dewey’s account of economic history neglects the history of slavery and its lack of “effective liberties.” He also masculinizes historical agency. Similarly, his account of intellectual history revises the notion of heroism but has limited racial and gender perspectives. For him, our stars are our thinkers, “the great heroes who have advanced human destiny are not its politicians, generals, and diplomatists, but the scientific discoverers and inventors who have put into man’s hands the instrumentalities of an expanding and controlled experience […]” By this, Dewey does not mean the crassly commercial manipulation of nature but a more benign process of “progressive adaptation of natural forces to social uses,” the Industrial Revolution (though capitalism has corrupted it so far), or vaccines, or, later, the Green Revolution in agriculture.

For Dewey, history is a complement to geography, although people need an “informed and cultivated imagination” to grasp this. Both “enrich and liberate the more direct and personal contacts of life by furnishing their context, their background and outlook.” Beyond and below this similarity, our life, quite simply, “takes place on earth.” We use nature, sail on its waters, mine its ores, turn its trees into shingles, but perhaps more profoundly, we are continuous with nature, “not an alien entering her processes from without.” As we study our interdependence with nature, we may begin with our home geography, but we must use home as a starting point for “moving out into the unknown.”

Dewey on geography anticipates three developments in the humanities. The first, like animal studies, moves out from the human to connect to the animal, as fact, myth, or metaphor; the second, globalization, moves out from the known of home nation or region out through the globe; and the third moves out from human history into the most distant plains and membranes of nature.

For example, widely and persuasively, Dipesh Chakrabarty calls for the conjoining of three histories, each with disparate time scales. The first is the Earth system, which broadens out to the planetary and interplanetary systems, which humans have barely begun to know through computerized telescopes and bravely engineered space probes. Hello, Pluto, with your mysterious smooth surfaces and icy mountains. The second is a “history of life including that of human evolution on the planet,” and the third is the much more recent history of industrial civilization, which Dewey regards with qualified approval and which for many is “capitalism.” Attempting to link these histories entails “rifts” in thought and the ability to live with “radical uncertainty.”

The cross-fertilization between history and geography enables even broader connections between humanism and naturalism. I often find Dewey sliding between the humanities, a study of the human, and humanism, a belief in humanity’s capacities. For Dewey, science at large must be used humanistically — that is, to serve the ends of man. In part, science has intellectual gifts. It teaches us about the world that we inhabit, including our own flesh and blood and bones, their biology and chemistry and physics. Moreover, the history of science displays the struggles by which mankind underwent an intellectual evolution from caprice to superstition to “intellectual self-possession.” This misbegotten evolutionary narrative haunts Democracy and Education. Nevertheless, that intellectual self-possession, or rationality, does enable us to deploy abstraction, generalization, and formulations that give us “intellectual vistas” beyond the merely personal.

In part, science has psychological gifts, for it can modify “the habitual attitude of imagination and feeling,” not simply extend our physical arms and legs, as the invention of modern transportation did. Finally, it has immense social promise. It can do away with evils “once thought inevitable.” Scientific methods, Dewey argues, during the growth of the modern social sciences, can provides the methods to rid us of perplexing problems. For him, they are “insanity” (our mental illnesses); intemperance (our addictions); and “poverty, public sanitation, city planning, the conservation of natural resources, the constructive use of governmental agencies for furthering the public good without weakening personal initiative” (still our vocabulary in English). We might add structural racism or caste hierarchies, the devaluation of the constructed Other, and the psychological roots of violence, be it in the home, or on the streets, and on the job, or on the battlefield.

Indeed, Democracy and Education was finished in 1916. The United States had not yet joined World War I, but Dewey, for complicated reasons, hoped that it would. Yet the book is a plea for education to initiate a peace that enables the explicitly articulated sharing of experience. The curriculum and pedagogy would be more than teaching the “horrors of war and [how] to avoid everything that would stimulate international jealousy and animosity.” It would, instead, stimulate solidarity, teaching “whatever binds people together in cooperative human pursuits and results” — the work of Eros, not Thanatos.

The narrative of Dewey’s reputation has him a towering public intellectual, losing stature after World War II as American pragmatism did, to be partially revivified as American pragmatism was. In education, his inspiration, the breath of his thought, remained. I feel it, not only in my memories of the Campus School in Bellingham, Washington, but also in the United States, in the surviving progressive colleges, such as Bennington, and in advocacy organizations for the liberal arts, such as the American Association of Colleges and Universities, that believe in interdisciplinary work, student-centered learning, work/study programs, and civic engagement.

Among contemporary philosophers, Martha Nussbaum has urgently extended the legacy of Dewey’s ideas about education, democracy, and the liberal arts, and interwoven them with those of his coeval, the equally influential Indian artist and educator, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). Human development, she declares, is different from and more important than economic development. It will nurture the global citizenship necessary for human flourishing now. In turn, this identity demands three great capabilities or capacities, a Deweyite language. All a push to expand consciousness, they are a capacity for Socratic self-criticism and critical thought about one’s own traditions; a capacity for seeing one’s self as a member of a heterogeneous nation and world; and the narrative imagination, the ability to read a different person’s story.

I wish Dewey were alive today, to speak about events since his death: the militarization of the United States, racial bias in criminal justice, propaganda as communication, the social media, the rise of income inequalities, and, in the academy, the fields of the neurosciences and computer sciences. Unless he had suffered a brain transplant, he might remind us that being good means living as a member of society, both giving and getting. We can then widen and deepen our conscious life, “a more intense, disciplined, and expanding realization of meanings. […] Education is such a life. […] Conscious life is a continued beginning afresh.” Dewey, the nomadic and democratic humanist, waits for us at a platform of thought and action.

II. Rosi Braidotti, The Nomad as the Posthuman Self

Rosi Braidotti is bold and prefers to begin afresh. She has other similarities to Dewey as well. She can praise the value of being pragmatic, although it seems more a synonym for common sense than a philosophy. She also wants to see her moment as clearly as possible. “The problem of philosophy,” Dewey wrote in one of his earliest essays, “is to determine the meaning of things as we find them, or of the actual.” Although the pluralistic Braidotti would speak of “problems” rather than “the problem” and of “meanings” rather than “the meaning,” she would agree. Like Dewey, she finds herself in a historically new situation, full of rapid changes, contradictions, and complexities. It can, she writes in Nomadic Theory, leave us “alternatively — or simultaneously exhilarated and exhausted.” This tumultuous affect demands critical intelligence to analyze it and creativity to mobilize and move with it.

Rosi-Braidotti-profileBraidotti, more flamboyantly self-descriptive than Dewey, offers herself as our “cartographer,” the analyst, and “navigator,” the mobilizer and mover. Yet both fear habits of thought that obscure the actual, erode intelligence, and stifle creativity. For Dewey, a danger is the hardening of these habits; for Braidotti, a danger is subscribing to a grand narrative that shapes our lives and determines their meaning: the gospel of capitalism for some, of genetics for others, the world according to St. DNA. Finally, the political beliefs of both are democratic. Braidotti writes, “Becoming-democratic is part of the nomadic political process.” To construct democracy, both call for conversation, consultations, sustained dialogues, which entail being responsive to others without controlling them. A form of control, of course, is to construct “Us” or “Me” at the center of things and, in contrast, the “Not Us,” or the “Not-Me,” or the Other, on the periphery.

If Dewey grew up and shaped the modern world before World War II, Braidotti grew up in the modern world after World War II, when intellectuals often looked with anguish and skepticism at the “modernity” that came before them. She was born in 1954, a generation behind the cultural studies of Stuart Hall (1932–2014) and the postcolonial theories of Edward Said (1935–2003) and Gayatri Spivak (b. 1942). Braidotti was the coeval of the next generation, which was to expand their powerful explorations of cosmopolitanism, colonialism, critical theory, gender, and race and ethnicity. Among them in the United States were bell hooks (b. 1952), Cornel West (b. 1953), and Judith Butler (b. 1956); in England, Paul Gilroy (b. 1956); in England and the United States, Kwame Anthony Appiah (b. 1954); in India and the United States, Homi K. Bhabha (b. 1949); and in India, Rukmini Bhaya Nair (b. 1952). This is a very partial list.

Braidotti’s birthplace was the northeast region of Italy, which the Venetians colonized in the 13th century. “Venice,” she writes, “was created under the sign of nomadism,” a place where borders and powers shifted frequently. Her region was under four different political regimes in the 20th century alone. Among her family members was an uncle, Romano, her mother’s brother, a Catholic priest who worked with migrants in Switzerland. A deeply loved mentor, he gave her boxes and boxes of books of philosophy. One of her most poignant and tender essays is “A Secular Prayer,” a tribute to her uncle Romano, the priest, as she stands at his graveside on a cold winter’s day in Northern Italy in the “shade of the cypress trees I remember from my youth.” Here, in grief, with clarity, she gratefully acknowledges her debt to his Catholicism. He taught her compassion. She also measures her distance from him. For his philosopher is the Christian St. Augustine, a father of the Roman Catholic Church. Her philosopher is Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher expelled from his synagogue in 1656. His metaphysics is transcendence, seeking the divine beyond our limits; her metaphysics is immanence, seeking the possible divine, the maybe divine, in the material world. Yet, in the shade of the cypress trees, she longs for a spirituality that might be consistent with her “matter-realism.”

Immediately before and during Braidotti’s childhood, global politics was in flux, turmoil, and re-organization. The United States was a superpower; the European colonial empires were ending, and newly liberated nations were emerging from them. Libya was independent from Italy. The task of “making it new,” which the modernist Ezra Pound assigned to poets, was claimed by science and technology. The STEM disciplines were dissolving the borders of “the human” by integrating the machine with the human, inorganic with organic. What, then, is the organism? The cultural prophets of this evolution were writing the often critically underestimated science fiction. As Braidotti was later to put it, people were engineering “humanoid hybrids.” She was only 16 when, in 1960, the term “cyborg” was invented; later in the same decade, “chatbot” was introduced as a neologism for computer programs that simulate human conversations. In 1978, the first surviving child launched through in vitro reproductive technologies, Louise Brown, was born.

In 1970, Braidotti’s family immigrated to Australia, ending up in Melbourne. Braidotti is understandably sensitive to the many dislocating mobilities, the nomadic elements, some happy, some unhappy, of her period:

[the] homeless, a migrant, an exile, a refugee, a tourist, a rape-in-war victim, an itinerant migrant, an illegal immigrant, an expatriate, a mail-order bride, a foreign caretaker of the young or the elderly of the economically developed world, a high-flying professional, a global venture financial expert, a humanitarian relief worker in the UN global system, a citizen of a country that no longer exists […]

Already speaking Italian and French, she learned English, did triumphantly in school, and graduated in 1978 from the Australian National University in Canberra in philosophy. Genevieve Lloyd, the feminist philosopher, was an influential mentor. As an immigrant, she has said, she discovered that all identities are relational. We know ourselves by knowing who else is around us, especially if they are different from us. In Anglo Australia, she recognized that she was a European, although her preferred Europe is multicultural and multilingual. Braidotti then went to France on a scholarship from the French government, studied in French, and took her doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1981.

Generous of spirit, Braidotti copiously acknowledges her many teachers and colleagues in the collaborative design of the “nomadic subject.” She is full of footnotes and echoes from literature, philosophy, and political theory. Among her most revered novelists are George Eliot and Virginia Woolf, whom she praises for their sense of life buzzing beneath our normal surfaces. Her iconic philosophers include Spinoza (her favorite), Nietzsche, and Freud. In Paris, she also found her post-baccalaureate teachers. They were a collection of talents, most born before World War II and adolescents or young men during it. She learned the theory of “nomadology” from Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Félix Guattari (1930–1992). Deleuze also taught her to distrust the revolutionary politics of the 1960s, for a belief in revolutionary purity is an “illusion” that engenders violence. Marxism has an equally nefarious utopian element. What one can trust is “lived experience.” From Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998), she took her skepticism of master narratives, those overarching stories that organize and authorize our lives, beliefs, and values. From Michel Foucault (1926–1984), she derived her analysis of power, the distinction between power as restrictive of action (potestas) or affirmative of it (potentia). Moreover, power is neither centralized in nor generated by a massive structure, the power plants of a metropolitan city rising above far-flung regions. Instead, it is polycentric, dynamic, dispersed throughout culture and society, operating in culture — systems of theory, patterns of representation, and “social modes of identification.”

These heady ideas began to seep into English in the 1960s under the oversimplifying rubric of “theory” or, even more oversimplified, “postmodernism.” To them, Braidotti alloyed feminism. Significantly, she was not yet born when Simone de Beauvoir published the iconic Le Deuxième Sexé in France in 1949, first translated into English in 1953 as The Second Sex. Braidotti was beginning her career as a young academic when de Beauvoir died in 1986. Braidotti knows the work of de Beauvoir; she was, after all, ubiquitous. However, her feminism is post–de Beauvoir, no longer in thrall to the concept of women as “the second” and “secondary” sex. She writes eloquently about Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), and her teacher Luce Irigaray (b. 1930 or 1932, depending on one’s source). They tutored her in severe doubt about phallocentrism, the organizing of language and human development around the phallic Law of the Father. Indeed, she repudiates any “centrism,” such as ethnocentrism. Not only does its central planning and central casting magisterially divide the world into “Us” and the lesser “Them,” but it also devours the multiple vectors and fragments of identities. She gained confidence in the “feminine.” It was neither a costume that women learn to wear nor a burden they learn to carry. Instead, it had significance and possibility. It could be a “productive site of intelligent and lucid resistance to the delusions of grandeur of the Phallic subject.” Moreover, the “difference that women embody” is a “positive foundation for the redefinition of female subjectivity in all its complexity.”

Braidotti was also receptive to American feminist theoreticians, or feminist scholar/critics who had spent much of their career in the United States. Several of them were of a slightly older generation, born in the span of the years immediately before and after World War II. Among them were Spivak, who integrated theories about language, postcolonialism, and feminism; Donna Haraway (b. 1944), who brought feminist insights about gender into the study of scientific practices; Joan W. Scott (b. 1941), who showed how historians could, and should, study gender; and Patricia Hill Collins (b. 1948), who demonstrated how the study of black women could, and should, alter feminist theory.

Preceding them all was Adrienne Rich (1929–2012), as major a figure in feminist thought as de Beauvoir, certainly in the United States. Braidotti frequently alludes to Rich’s influential “politics of location,” originally the subject of a lecture Rich gave in Utrecht in 1984. To practice the politics of location is to be an acutely sensitive micro-politician, aware of one’s own body, the site of “female organs.” However, we are more than our bodies. We are embedded both in nature and in a network of relations and sources of identity, many in conflict with each other. I am, Rich writes, both racially white and a Jew in the United States. My first language was English, not the German of the Third Reich nor of a European country that the Nazis conquered. She emerges from this environment with a singular voice that she claims. A responsibility of singularity is to recognize the singularity of others and each person’s own voice. “You cannot speak for me. I cannot speak for us,” she declares. Yet, the claiming of an individual voice does not preclude acting with others, the building of a community and a politics. Indeed, it enables it. The particular politics of this location are those of change and asserting women’s role in change in various times and places. Because of change, history is open ended. Rich’s final sentence is, “This is the end of these notes, but it is not an ending.”

Then, in her own work, Braidotti — vibrant, exuberant, ebullient, occasionally headstrong — puts it all together. In one page, indeed in one paragraph, she can be syncretic and improvisational, sober and performative. Her style in English consists of one-liners, lucid analyses, and a polysyllabic discourse that might seem like jargon to some and a revelation to others. Disentangling her in detail from her teachers and predecessors is too intricate a task for this case study, this proof of concept, but outlining her suggestions for the nomadic humanities is not.

As a cartographer, she draws a contemporary character, a “conceptual personae,” that she names the “nomadic subject.” Like Dewey’s thinking/imagining/communicating subject, Braidotti’s “nomadic subject” represents a theory of human nature for people to explore, use, or abuse. Perhaps even further from a home base than Dewey’s subject, the “nomadic subject” is estranged from “the familiar, the intimate, the known.” Then, like others, Braidotti names the age in which the nomadic subject lives — along with other animals, vegetables, and minerals. She adapts two terms already in circulation. The first is the “Anthropocene,” denoting that humans now dominate and irrevocably affect nature, a power some celebrate and others decry. Dipesh Chakrabarty writes that the “Anthropocene” signifies both the radical human alteration of the climate and the “near-comman appropriation of the biosphere.” For example, humans are about one-third of the vertebrate body mass on Earth, and most of the other two-thirds are what humans keep to eat.

In tandem with the Anthropocene is the “posthuman.” The posthuman nomadic subject lives in the Anthropocenic period. With a cheerfully ironic bow to Candide, Braidotti submits that our posthuman planet is “one of the possible worlds we have made for ourselves and in so far as it is the result of joint efforts and collective imaginings, it is quite simply the best of all possible posthuman worlds.” A narrower concept than the Anthropocene, the posthuman is the most recent of the rubrics under which people in the arts and sciences categorize their analyses of and hopes for culture and society — especially in the West. The roots of the posthuman lie in early modern humanism. Its icon is Vitruvian Man, which da Vinci designed around 1490. Standing in a circle, arms and legs outstretched to touch its perimeter, Vitruvian Man is the rational measure of all things. Significantly, Columbus set sail in 1492, Vitruvian Man and European explorations giving wind to each other.

Braidotti values much in humanism and its various strains. Politically and morally, it believed in emancipatory freedoms and in progress. Liberal humanism supports “individualism, autonomy, responsibility, and self-determination.” A more radical humanism promotes “solidarity, community-bonding, social justice and principles of equality.” Secular humanism respects science and culture, nurturing the capacity for curiosity and discovery. Despite these virtues, anti-humanism arose after World War II. After the Holocaust, after the Gulags, after rapacious colonizations, who could glorify the icon of Vitruvian Man? After the insights of feminism, who could believe in the “essence” of an overweening Man? Or the “essence” of a womb-y woman? Although she is “sexed,” she is also “split, knotted, and complex.”

For the “human subject” is a congeries of human subjects, obviously “enfleshed,” but each psychologically diverse within and socially diverse without. The “family of man” is all over the place. Indebted to Deleuze and 20th-century art history, Braidotti speaks of the self as an “assemblage within a common life space,” which is always moving. The conscious subject, like Freud’s ego in its struggle with the superego and the id, never “masters nor possesses [this collection], but merely inhabits, crosses, always in a community, a pack, a group, or a cluster.” Grateful for her seven years of psychoanalysis in Paris as a young woman, she also discusses the fracture between consciousness and the unconscious. “In my scheme of thought,” she writes, “identity bears a privileged bond to unconscious processes, whereas political subjectivity is a conscious and willful position.” She adds, with rueful irony, “Unconscious desire and willful choice do not always coincide.”

Anti-humanism is the bridge between humanism and posthumanism. Its decentering of anthropocentrism enables the nomadic humanist to walk into the Anthropocene. Despite its dominance on Earth, no doubt temporary, homo sapiens is no longer a towering singularity. Homo sapiens may have generated the innovations of science and technology, but, because of them, the boundaries between the human and other biological forms have become fluid. So have those between human and the machine. Be careful of what you wish for in the lab. “Is R2-D2 a person?” cheekily asks a review of current philosophical explorations of identity.

Braidotti places this march from humanism to anti-humanism to posthumanism in a far more immense, even cosmic, context. She first distinguishes between Bios and Zoe, which she derives from a Greek word for life. The former seems to be both biological, our life forms, and linguistic, “a discourse about social and political life,” which names and codifies those forms. The latter, Zoe, consists of the gales and currents of raw life running beneath and throughout Bios. Zoe is a key to her ideas of “radical immanence” or “vitalist materialism” or “matter-realism.” Braidotti attributes her thinking about a Zoe-driven “monistic universe” to Spinoza, and it would take a trained philosopher to sort out this relationship. She frequently deploys some often rhapsodic, even mystical, language to render Zoe accessible. It is “the generative power that flows across all species.” A relentless transversal force, it “cuts across and reconnects” the previously “segregated domains” of the Other, nature, and viruses, be their origins organic or technological. It is “cosmic energy, simultaneously empty chaos and absolute speed or movement. […] It is impersonal and inhuman in the monstrous, animal sense of radical alterity: zoe in all its powers.” Crucially, it is “driven by the desire for self-expression and ontologically free.” For, crucially, matter is smart, self-organizing, “autopoietic.” Who needs a metaphysical or ideological driver if one can drive one’s self?

The spume of Zoe’s waves, Braidotti’s nomadic subject is in perpetual nonlinear motion. It is “rhizomatic,” a term from Deleuze and Guattari, visualizing our movements as underground biological shoots with both stems and roots, growing laterally or diagonally or orthogonally. Sexual difference is a “process of sexual differing.” We “transverse” differences. (Aside: Braidotti confirms my conviction that the prefix “trans” is the most overused prefix in the English language today, although the prefix “inter” [interconnection, interaction] is a close second. Indeed the movements that “trans” signifies can lead to the new linkages that “inter” signifies. “Trans” is everywhere: in language [translation]; in politics and geography [transnational, transcontinental, transposition]; in metaphysics [transcendental or not]; in movement [transportation, transmission, transversal]; in gender [transgender]; and real change [transmogrify, transform].) We “zig-zag,” like laces moving through grommets in a tirelessly tapping pair of Converses. Explicitly drawing on Deleuze, Braidotti collapses “being” and “doing,” and encourages us to enter into the activities of “Becoming.” Sexuality itself is an “ontological drive to pure becoming,” a polymorphous and complex force. Zoe and sexuality seem like the force in a Dylan Thomas poem, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees / Is my destroyer.”

The posthuman moment and relentless Zoe are compatible. Ever in motion, the nomadic subject must relate to other life forms, so widely that we should speak, not of humanity, but of “panhumanity.” In her touching evocation of her priest uncle Romano, Braidotti recalls that they differed in what is “outside of the human.” For him, it was “the divine, for her, the animal or the technological other.” We must now take “the bioegalitarian turn” — or, more deeply, the “zoe-egalitarian turn.” If we do, we will discover a “planetary, geo-centered perspective,” which will open into “the cosmic in an immanent materialistic dimension.”

At the moment, Braidotti can use the conjunction “or” to separate the animal from the technological other. As for the latter, we are becoming the machine. Vitruvian Man is now cybernetic. But one example: Contemporary science and technology are duplicating the human nervous system. Braidotti is a self-confessed technophiliac. Occasionally, some skepticism might temper this love. For example, she calls Oscar Pistorius an exemplary figure in the 2012 Olympic Games and a prophecy of posthuman things to come. For this double amputee since boyhood is now a technologically “enhanced human […] on carbon fibre transtibial artificial limbs.” However, her praise of Pistorius was surely published before his all-too-human hand pulled the trigger of the gun that killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, in a toilet in his home in South Africa.

As for “the animals,” the human shares an ecological terrain with them. Snappily, Braidotti rejects certain liberal schools of thinking about them. She insists that we must not anthropomorphize animals and transmute them into humans with some different habits and appearances. So rejecting the self-serving coziness of anthropomorphism, we must also decline to take two powerful, historical ethical positions. One is granting the Other recognition, the acknowledgment that he or she also has freedom, autonomy, dignity. The other is believing in inalienable rights for all. The correct position, Braidotti argues, is to replace mutual recognition with “mutual specification,” seeing exactly what each species is and then, accepting our differences, working out an alliance of co-dependents. Such an alliance enables the replacement of the “moral philosophy of rights” with the ethics of sustainability, which will surely, I suggest, demand sacrifices from us all, especially the more predatory and wasteful.

Dialectically, Braidotti’s theories of life, “bios” and “zoe,” zig-zag with her concept of death. She is a kind and warm-hearted person, but her writing about death often seems ruthless, insufficiently attentive to the severities of trauma and to the agonies of grief — that of a parent who has lost a child. This is less apparent when, as our cartographer, she inventories our “biopolitics” (Foucault) and “necropolitics,” (Achille Mbembe). Like others, she enumerates the destructive consequences of our biogenetic ambitions and new technologies. They disrupt human/animal interactions. They give us new ways of harming and killing each other. Weapons become intelligent; viruses proliferate. A “nomadic necropolitics” would itemize at least two, linked ways of dying. One is collective, the “different socially distributed and organized ways of dying: violence, diseases, poverty; accidents; wars, and catastrophes.” The other is “[i]nternally produced and self-run […] suicide, burnout, depression, and other psychosomatic pathologies.”

Like the nomadic subject, whom it would prefer to dominate, the global economy that manufactures biogenetic and technological products is also hypermobile. Braidotti writes, “advanced capitalism is the great nomad par excellence in that it is propelled by the mobility of goods, data, and finances for the sake of profit and commodification.” Moreover, the imperatives of advanced capitalism order us to get up and go. I, for one, am sick of them: disrupt, compete, reengineer, invent, innovate, accelerate. The word “design,” both noun and verb, is sweetly pastoral in comparison. Braidotti, like other progressives, is keenly aware of the social and economic costs of advanced capitalism, the precariousness of working conditions, the rise of underpaid and interim work, the exploitation of social mobility that enables transnational flows of migrants searching for work. Then, fearful that such movements might become politically destabilizing, nation-states want to block asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. The bureaucratic paper of visas and passports dovetails with enfleshed border guards.

Braidotti’s toughness is most overt when she describes the nomadic subject as “a virtual corpse” or the ethical life as “virtual suicide.” Simply, we are born to die, the unstoppable trajectory of our individual being. Zoe demands it, and Zoe rewards it. Of course, our narcissism finds it “unthinkable that Life should go on without my being there.” Or, as Braidotti writes, “Too bad that the relentless generative powers of death require the suppression of that which is nearest and dearest to me, namely, myself, my own vital being-there.” Consciously we struggle for survival. However, “at some deeper level of our unconscious structures, all we long for is to lie silently and let time wash over us in the stillness of nonlife.” We actually yearn for this disappearance, for merging “into […] [the] eternal flow of becomings.” In another formulation, indebted to Deleuze, she tells us that “life is desire, which essentially aims at expressing and hence extinguishing itself, by reaching its aim and then dissolving.” Cunningly, the wish to die can also be the wish to live intensely, moth to our own flame. Be all that you can be, then dissolve. Eros and Thanatos are no longer in opposition, but one life force. Death is the “becoming imperceptible” of the nomadic subject. In a blunt aphorism, she states, “Death is overrated.”

Braidotti’s nomadic theory and subject can either engage or enrage humanists — depending on their intellectual tastes. As aware as anyone is about the fretful condition of the humanities, she asserts that they will survive — if they go in the direction of the posthuman. Traveling there demands that we think and think about thinking. For Braidotti, as for Dewey, thinking may matter more than thought. However, and here she is only partly like Dewey, thinking must relate more to the power of affect than to the rule of reason. Indeed, Braidotti suggests, what if the dispositive question of the posthuman was not who thinks but what suffers? Thinking can be painful in its intensity. It “throws you open into the generative chaos of Life.” It causes “strain, psychic unrest, and nervous tension.”

Such anguish is also the consequence of confronting the horrors of our time: the Holocaust, slavery, genocide. If we do so, it may help to heal their pain, but we can never rid ourselves of pain. Like the ancient divinities, Zoe can be merciless. In a swipe at Utilitarians and a bow to Nietzsche, she states that life is “beyond pleasure and pain — it is a process of becoming, of stretching the boundaries of endurance.” Grittily going as far as we can with pain can be a form of high-stakes existential testing. Braidotti suggests that those who have suffered pain and injury are “better placed to take the lead in the process of ethical transformation.” The traumatized, as the pioneers of endurance, are the avant-garde of change. The safe and secure are too cocooned to bother. In a similar suggestion that the suffering and the weak are our wisest voices, Gayatri Spivak encourages us to ask how an illiterate poor peasant woman perceives and reacts to globalization. Being marginalized is no deficit but a guardianship of truths.

We think fruitfully if we participate in the proliferation of counter-discourses: studies of gender, ethnicity, cultural diversity, animals, the postcolonial, disability, death, conflict, trauma, the environment. The nomadic humanities provides a common focus for them all. Each takes up one significant element of identity in the Anthropocene that the traditional humanities either could not or would not explore. These subjects have global range. Few cultures, for example, have erased gender from their arrangements. As a result, the humanities must continue to break away from Europe and the West as the focus and locus of inquiry. Indeed, a “global humanities” and global history now shuttle among North and South, East and West, Northeast and Southwest, Southeast and Northwest — with some helicopter landing pads at the poles. The formidable scholar Mary Louise Pratt, in “Language and the Afterlives of Empire,” asks us to “rightly celebrate” new discoveries, narratives, shifting paradigms. “[D]ecentering Europe and modernity, [they] establish the long-term interconnections across Africa, Asia, and Europe that circulated and shaped knowledge, technology, and socioeconomic formations.” Simultaneously, the thinking explorer finds divergent and separate developments. In brief, the more one travels and learns, the harder it is to mash up a unified field theory about the quarks and particles of human life. Some common truths, yes; some common patterns, yes; some common trade routes, yes; a universal grid to impose upon human evolution and behavior, no, despite efforts to manufacture one.

Keeping up, moving on, many humanities departments now do offer a wondrous mix of past and present, locations and locutions. The website of my own department, English at New York University, lists these faculty interests, among others: African-American literature; animal studies; data mining; feminist theory; history of sexuality; Latino/Chicano literature and studies; medieval literature and culture; postcolonial studies; print culture and digital culture; Shakespeare; Victorian literature; and off-kilter Englishness.

Not surprisingly, we still lack a common natural language, let alone a conceptual one — despite the dreams of many. In a few decades, or less, a computerized common natural language will emerge, a programmed Esperanto, which both people and animals might use. For now, as Braidotti knows, translation studies are necessary. For a nomadic subject is a polyglot, capable of both speaking several languages and one language that has multiple sources — Spanglish, for example. However, we must be aware of how words and meanings and rhythms get displaced and adapted when we pass through the checkpoints of one language to another. Not surprisingly, Braidotti, herself a fluent polyglot, is sardonic about culturally self-important beliefs in a “Mother Tongue.” For it nurtures nationalism, regionalism, and localism, now being renewed as border-crunching nomadism grows. Biting on or caressing a Mother Tongue “repeats everything nomadic subjects reject.”

Although Braidotti argues correctly that humanities programs have been creative laboratories of new thinking, she asserts that the humanities must connect with the sciences. She underestimates how hard it is to do “actual” science. The efforts that took a spacecraft to Pluto and then photographed its icy mountains were arduous and time-consuming, building on generations of research, deploying teams of researchers. They also involve mathematics, toxic for many math-phobic humanists. Humanists can deceive themselves about the amount of hard work it takes to grasp the sciences and their methods, and the effort that a genuine “mutual respect” would entail. Yet she is adamant about the need of the humanities to incorporate more fully the resources of biogenetic codes, telecommunications, new media, and information technologies, and, I would add, “big data.” If the humanities do not, they will be blind to our posthuman flows and effects.

Such convictions are a symptom of Braidotti’s advocacy of the interdisciplinary. Like Dewey, she fears the disciplines, far more so than I do, since I believe that the specialized knowledge of a discipline, with curiosity as a compass, is necessary for discovery. Reinventing the wheel takes us nowhere if we already have well-oiled wheels on which to travel. Yet, Braidotti writes with some plausibility, “Posthuman subjectivity reshapes the identity of humanistic practices, by stressing heteronomy and multi-faceted relationality, instead of autonomy and self-referential disciplinary purity.” Music, I believe, can provide a connective tissue among the disciplines. Music, with its connections to mathematics, demands intellectual rigor. The inventors of the liberal arts correctly made music part of the quadrivium with arithmetic, astronomy, and geometry. However, music is also accessible, perhaps the most accessible of the global art forms. It stimulates emotions as well as thought. No matter how structurally, tonally, and performatively complex it might be, it need not be translated from one natural language to another. Moreover, music, organized sound in motion, is everywhere. It emerges from nature, the music of insects and birds and whales and water and the spheres; it dwells within and emanates from the human living body and brain; it emerges from our technologies. We do not fear this largesse of creativity. On the contrary, most people love it.

Yet the discipline of philosophy emerges in Braidotti with an immense and no doubt controversial responsibility. Affectively, nomadic philosophy “loves zoe and sings its praises by emphasizing active, empowering forces against all negative odds.” Cognitively and ethically, philosophers must strike up a “conceptual alliance with the efforts of evolutionary theory to strike a new relationship to the nonhuman.” This should lead to that environmentally based, biocentered egalitarianism, that philosophy of “radical immanence and affirmative becoming.” This, in turn, educates and forms an ethical nomadic subject, activated into “sustainable processes of transformation.” Or, as she also puts it, a nomadic Zoe-centered approach “connects human to non-human life so as to develop a comprehensive eco-philosophy of being.”

Braidotti is a university woman and has a notable career within it. She has been an effective, recognized advocate for the humanities and, crucially, for women’s studies in Europe. Yet, schooled by Deleuze and Lyotard, she is suspicious of institutions. She is also mindful of Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins, with its influential, if grossly oversimplified, picture of the university as the regime of administrators who prate on emptily about “excellence.” Yet, Braidotti being Braidotti, she has a blueprint for a new university. Drawing on 20th-century traditions, which Dewey did so much to establish, she calls for openness, freedom, and independence of research. Its pedagogy will be constructive, its thinking critical. Because of modern technologies, it is virtual and “hence global by definition.” However, the university, too, must practice the politics of location. It can be a “hub,” both producing knowledge locally and serving that setting, and transmitting cognitive data, ideas, and information, globally.

All this is a part of today’s parlance about universities, but Braidotti is a passionate dreamer who does carry those elements of humanism and its historic vision of a republic of letters into her posthuman world. Coincidentally or not, she works in a country, the Netherlands, where Erasmus, the prophet and practitioner of a European republic of letters, was born in 1466. Like her beloved uncle and mentor, he, too, was a priest. Braidotti’s republic of letters is intellectually, socially attuned and ethically alert. Dewey would applaud her. Like me, she dreams of “communities of learning: schools, universities, books and curricula, debating societies, theatre, radio, television and media programmes — and later, website and computer environments — that look like the society they both reflect, serve and help to construct.” These communities would produce “socially relevant knowledge” and offer a moral presence: a respect for basic principles of social justice, decency, and diversity; a commitment to academic freedom; anti-racism work and an openness to others; and conviviality.

Throughout it all, including her most compressed vocabulary, Braidotti is wonderfully affirmative, that word she deploys frequently. She may have moments of intellectual pessimism, but she is consistently fearless, energetic, and buoyant. In her quarrels, both explicit and implicit, with contemporary theory, she rejects panic, melancholia, and cowering before a barren doom. If she calls for critique, she demands creativity as well. As we glimpse the social horizons of hope, the tide of negativity must be turned. The commitment to “the social horizons of hope” requires double-vision or a zig-zag or a transversal: “seeing the creative potential of social phenomena that may appear negative at first.” This is compatible with understanding the “fluid workings of power” and resisting them at the same time. If the nomadic subject does this, he or she or it will travel into “the transformative process of achieving freedom of understanding through the awareness of our limits, of our bondage.” The result of this is another freedom — “to affirm one’s essence as joy, through encounters and minglings with other bodies, entities, beings and forces. Ethics means faithfulness to this potentia or the desire to become. […] It is life on the edge, but not over it.”

I like the exuberance and find it too often missing in the contemporary humanities. Walking down University Place in New York City recently, I saw a poster advertising language classes at NYU’s Deutsches Haus. “Learn German,” it read, “If you DER.” A joke, I thought with relief, a witty pun on the German “der” and the English “dare” that one could get even without being bilingual, though I then cringed at myself, for the job security of my tenure enabled my good mood. But nomadic humanists might well heed Braidotti’s call to express “amor fati: a deep love of the world and of its often pathetic and almost always dramatic vicissitudes.” They might well post to themselves the questions that Braidotti puts to herself about her “alternative notions of practices of the subject” “What are the values — ethical and political — they can offer? What good are they to anybody? And how much fun are they?”

III. J. M. Coetzee, The Nomad As Other

coetzeeJ. M. (John Maxwell) Coetzee was born in 1940 in Cape Town. His family was among the 17th-century Dutch settlers. His roots, for a Westerner, are deep. His father was a lawyer, his mother a teacher. In his banquet speech at the Nobel Prize ceremonies in 2003, he asked, with love and dry wit, “And for whom, anyway, do we do the things that lead to Nobel Prizes if not for our mothers?” One strand of Waiting for the Barbarians, this succinct but monumental novel, is about South Africa under apartheid, but only one strand. The great subject of Waiting for the Barbarians is the grandiose yet mean dream of empire. Caught in this dream, but growingly self-aware, moving into consciousness, is the Magistrate, a minor imperial administrator. He wins his knowledge by enduring a pain so extreme that it scours away anything as trivial as embarrassment. His torturers are amoral and too callously removed from everyday life to feel embarrassment, let alone shame or guilt.

The title of Waiting for the Barbarians is from a famous poem by C. P. Cavafy (1863–1933) that begins: “What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square? / The barbarians are supposed to arrive today.” However, the barbarians do not arrive, and the poem ends, “And now what’s to become of us without barbarians. / Those people were a solution of a sort.” For the collective “we” of the poem, the barbarians represent any threatening and despised Other. Both poem and novel are scathing about the self-flattering construction of the binary opposition of civilized community and a despised and threatening Other. The imperialists of the novel call the nomads who live beyond the frontier the barbarians. Yet the imperialists are the true moral and political monsters.

Writing in the present tense, the novel’s narrator, the Magistrate, gives us his story and dreams, part history, part confession, not always decipherable. He is struggling to think. He is the decent enough, thoughtful enough, good enough overseer of a sleepy outpost of the empire, the civil and military authority for about 3,000 inhabitants and a military garrison. The indigenous fisherfolk are by a nearby lake; the nomads are in the mountains across a desert. They are simply there. The son of an old family, he has archaeological, anthropological, literary, and historical interests. He represents civilization: the law, liberal learning, agriculture, and some self-interrogations. He has a humanistic talent for eloquence. Yet he has boundaries of cognitive and moral competence. He cannot crack the codes of the remains of ancient languages he finds in his explorations. Though he is no vicious sexual bully, he exploits the women of the town. Aging, he fears a loss of potency.

Then the year of hell begins. A Colonel Joll arrives from the Third Bureau of the Civil Guard. A vicious man, wearing dark glasses that conceal his eyes, toting a writing desk, he applies the technologies of civilization to the execution of his duties. The Empire is waging another frontier war against the barbarians in order to protect the “homeland.” His Expeditionary Force is to destroy the barbarians, the New Barbarian, the administrator of an Empire of Pain that brutally polices the political imperial structure. At first, he is successful. He and his troops capture some nomads and bring them to the town as prisoners, to interrogate them with the enhanced techniques of the more sophisticated torture. Among them is a woman, the Girl, who has been crippled and blinded. The Magistrate, who has ineffectually tried to resist Joll, takes her as his mistress. Although he is kind, and tries to heal her, the Magistrate dramatizes how much civilized men eroticize their relationship with the Other, here the nomads; how much such men crave acceptance from the Other; and how little such men know them. The Magistrate will later regret that he never learned the Girl’s language, but she has learned his and can translate for him.

Eventually, as an act of rebellion against Joll and as an act of recognition of the Girl’s identity, he returns her to her tribe. She goes willingly. When he returns, after a long and painful journey, he is arrested for treason, and his agony begins. He is rendered into the Empire of Pain. He is tortured, not quite to the point of death, and humiliated, not quite to the point of the loss of a shard of self. This humanistic civil servant learns the agrammatical speech of agony. At the worst of his pain, hanging by his wrists from a tree, wearing women’s clothing, he discovers that he wants to live, an animal bellow. Perhaps this is a sign of Braidotti’s “zoe.” Eventually, his tormentors free him to wander with his scars and wounds around the town.

The Expeditionary Force against the barbarians, done stupidly, goes badly. Joll and his soldiers, destroying what they can, taking and stealing what they can, run away as the town panics. The Magistrate remains, slowly reassumes some shreds of authority over a depopulated town. The fisherfolk “begin all over again the task of home-building.” The nomads are in their mountains and pastures. The Magistrate, dreaming and writing, makes a series of discoveries, notable for their moral realism. He may have been, as his torturers taunt him, the last just man, but he has also been the benign face of empire. He and Joll are both imperial rulers. He says bitterly, “I was the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy, he the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow. Two sides of imperial rule, no more, no less.” He learns to value elemental kindness and simple food, some stew, a cup of tea. Perhaps, he asks himself, the nomads will also value some elements of civilization, literacy, agriculture, this bread and gooseberry jam. With such self-knowledge and with such gratitude for such virtues, he understands that he has been turning in two great cycles. One is the cycle of history, that of empire, which will fall in spite of or because of its will toward power and domination. The second is the cycle of nature, the seasons, within which the fisherfolk and the nomads dwell. Children live liminally between empire and nature, becoming what their community decrees.

As he nears the end of his narrative, the Magistrate has three revealing self-images. One is a memory from his administration before the arrival of the Expeditionary Force. He has been punishing a peasant soldier for an understandable transgression, wishing to go home to see his mother and sisters. He is aware that he has the bully pulpit and that the soldier must submit to him. Nevertheless, the Magistrate talks to the soldier. Before the Magistrate does, he first thinks to himself that he has no doubt about what he is about to say: “each one of us, man, woman, child, perhaps even the poor old horse turning the mill-wheel, knew what was just: all creatures come into the world bringing with them the memory of justice.” He then speaks: “But we live in a world of laws […] a world of the second-best. There is nothing we can do about that. We are all fallen creatures. All we can do is to uphold the laws, all of us, without allowing the memory of justice to fade.” Now, of course, he doubts, although he does not repudiate, this older certainty.

Later, after the “imperial army has been annihilated,” the Magistrate has two other self-images that also balance contradictory possibilities. In one, he is lying at night on his bare mattress. His meditations echo Freud’s essay The Future of an Illusion. The world, he first thinks, is neither an illusion nor a nightmare, an “evil dream of a night.” But, he then asks, reversing Freud, who is he “to jeer at life-giving illusions?” Why not dream of a “savior with a sword who will scatter the enemy hosts and forgive us the errors that have been committed by others in our name and grant us a second chance to build our earthly paradise?” He then falls asleep as he focuses on the picture of himself swimming through the waters of time. The third self-image is the end of his narrative. Winter is coming. The cycle of the seasons may be repetitive as a cycle, but the seasons are harbingers of change. He has been watching children build a snowman. He leaves the scene “feeling stupid, like a man who has lost his way long ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.” The memory-keeper of justice who may permit that memory to fade; the swimmer in time; the traveler on a road uncertain of its end — these are the unsettled, profoundly unsettling insights from and for a nomadic humanities.


The “nomadic humanities” I have proposed calls for a new subject matter, “the processes and meanings of our intricate, terrifying, interconnected, and beautiful movements.” Two of my case studies, or proofs of concept, offer a picture of the human subject who could perform as a nomadic humanist. My third case study demonstrates how a nomadic humanist might work with a novel, which is a narrative of traditional nomadism and its opponents. Each of my case studies is a robust settlement of language, which readings will dig up and rebuild. Together, they also unsettle and decenter each other. That is part of their power and vitality. Singly and together, they make us restless. Together, they ask us to move intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively. Together, they ask us to wander among their differences. Some of these differences are in affect. Locked though Dewey may be in the modern humanism of the 20th century, the measured optimism of Democracy and Education pulsates between the affirmations of Braidotti and the austerities of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Other differences are in their vision of the human subject: Dewey’s pioneering and democratic pragmatism; Braidotti’s controversial and Zoe-ridden posthumanism; Coetzee’s unsparing fallen creatures, who may have a memory of justice.

The differences that we must bridge as listeners and readers, by ourselves or in a pack, are indeed chasms. We must measure their perilous depths before we leap over them. The contemporary humanities cannot survive unless humanists can work with differences of thinking, acting, and identity. However, my nomadic humanists also inhabit landscapes that have some similar features. They value the imagination and the worlds the imagination helps to create — although they recoil from bloody fantasies of any “leader” running the show. Intellectually, they call for thinking and for self-understanding, even if, like the Magistrate, we may best understand our stupidity. All embody, Coetzee with the greatest anguish, Freud’s insistence in The Future of an Illusion that we must grow up, that we cannot remain children, that we must educate ourselves in reality. If we do so, we can bear “the troubles of life and the cruelties of [that] reality.”

Morally, they urge us toward kindness, toward a palpable uniting of empathy and compassion and generosity. Kindness, an activity in which we engage with others, discourages the engineering of The Other. Environmentally, they insist that we live with and within nature. Although Dewey believes in scientific progress and the elimination of socially inflected biological harms — a disease, for example — they refuse to posture as domineering masters of nature. On the contrary, we are part of nature, nature a part of us. These are the virtues the nomadic humanities can promote as we move incessantly if erratically toward the future.

I do not mean to romanticize being unsettled. Homes, no matter how temporary, are necessary for security, comfort, joys and jokes, and sanity. The fisherfolk in Coetzee rebuild their huts. If we are homeless, we can ache for a home. Beloved, Toni Morrison’s novel, is an American epic about journeys, often agonizing, be they physical, psychological, political, or spiritual. Near the end of the novel, when Paul D has returned to Sethe in the house on Bluestone Road in Ohio, he remembers what another slave, in the ironically named Sweet Home Plantation in Kentucky, has told him about his love from the Thirty-Mile Woman. “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” We long to be gathered and gathered in.

However, I grew up in a United States that romanticized “home” and now longs for a walled-in “homeland.” As a child, my classmates, family, and I routinely sang an anthem of American civil society. Its signature lines are: “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam / Where the deer and the antelope play. / Where seldom is heard a discouraging word / And the sky is not cloudy all day.” As little white children, we had to learn about the brutal dislocations of indigenous nomads on the American continent that were taking place even as such pastoral visions were being strummed and hummed. The aftershock of such lessons was the resolution not to romanticize “home” and the “homeland.”

It is now almost settled wisdom that the human subject, in this posthuman and anthropo(s)cenic era, is entangled in new ways with the “natural” and the “technological.” I fear both the assignment of women to “the natural” and the limitation of their access to the technological, including the electricity that we need to charge our machines. Braidotti would, I suggest, understand my fear, but, like others, she stakes her claims to relevance on tracing the shifting interconnections of the natural, the technological, and the human. For many, these partial mergings of identity are unsettling, often profoundly so.

At the extreme edges of response are denial or an equally stupid technophilia. Here robots will be our cuddly love objects, compliant servants, or ever-calm personal assistants, Siri with syrup. Significantly, voices, more cautionary than Braidotti, have come from the sciences themselves. In 1998, Bill Joy, a leader of Sun Microsystems, wrote of becoming “anxiously aware” of the greatness of the dangers facing the 21st century, dangers that science fiction has long anticipated. The technologies of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics can, Joy cautions us, “spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses.” We are on the cusp of further perfecting “extreme evil, an evil whose possibility spreads well beyond that which weapons of mass destruction bequeathed to the nation-states, on to a surprising and terrible empowerment of extreme individuals.” Moreover, these technologies can bring on their “destructive self-replication.”

A nomadic humanities is richly positioned to explore these entanglements, their purposes and values. It can call on centuries of explorations about the meanings of being human, meanings that are being rewritten and reanimated. A nomadic humanities is comfortable with diversity and change. So situated, it recognizes and respects the tensions between the necessities of being unsettling and being settled, being decentered and upright. With roots in democratic traditions and even older fears of imperial bullies, it can argue for an equitable vision of the human subject, no matter what life forms it might incorporate and embody.

Being a nomadic humanist is to worry about falling prey to self-satisfying illusions and delusions, but hope can keep company with such an anxiety. I believe, hopefully, that the nomadic humanities can wander into a satisfying, but never self-satisfied, fissured set of purposes and values on an Earth whose denizens can also probe the cosmos. But then, to draw on another American tradition, that of musical theater, I’m just a cock-eyed optimist, immature and incurably green.

Well, shall we move on?


Catharine R. Stimpson is University Professor and Dean Emerita, New York University. A version of this essay was given as a lecture at Central European University on October 1, 2015. I am grateful to the Provost of CEU, Liviu Matei, for his invitation to speak.


[1] I am grateful to Sachi Leith for provoking my interest in the nomadic in her brilliant May 2015 capstone senior thesis at New York University/Abu Dhabi. Her focus was Galsan Tschinag (b. 1944), Tuvan by tribal affiliation, Mongolian by nationality, who writes in German. As a young man, he was a scholarship student in East Germany. He is nomad by heritage, a wanderer, and a traveler with an itinerary.

[2] My thanks to Mai Al-Nakib for suggesting this to me.

[3] I am grateful to W. J. T. Mitchell for urging me to stress immobility as well as mobility.

[4] A briefer version of this section appeared in Public Books as “Democracy and Education at 100,” 4/15/2016; my thanks to Caitlin Zaloom.