What is Professor Michael Randall doing NOW?

The professor of French and comparative literature talks about his new book and the importance of supporting the humanities

Michael Randall is an associate professor of French and comparative literature with expertise in late Medieval and Renaissance poetry, prose and philosophy, as well as Italian and comparative literature. BrandeisNOW spoke to him about his current projects and how he keeps his classes in tune with current events.

BrandeisNOW: What are you working on right now?
Michael Randall
MR: I recently finished a book called “The Gargantua Polity: On the Individual and the Community in the French Renaissance.” It’s being published by the University of Toronto Press and it should be out any day now. The book looks at the idea that the modern individualist was born in the Renaissance. The interesting thing is that if you look at the literature and the ‘juridical’ tradition from the late Middle Ages, you see there’s lots of individualism there. But that individualism is defined in terms of relationships to other people. There was a contract of what they called mutual obligation that tied different parts of the polity, different parts of the political group, the political city, to other individuals. So your understanding of yourself was in relation to other people rather than in relation to yourself. And so that’s a different kind of individualism, and that individualism basically gets lost in the 16th century, in the Renaissance. As political absolutism comes in, that kind of understanding of political obligation to others disappears, because the kings have all the power. Up until then, power was shared amongst different people in the polity, and that’s what the book is about. It’s about how in literature and in juridical treatises this kind of individualism, defined as obligation to others, gets lost.

BrandeisNOW: How did you become interested in the topic?

MR: Many of these books, even if they’re written about the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, are concerned with things we are concerned with today. Today, society seems to value the idea that self-interest is the motor of our polity, of our society. If you read many classical philosophers, from Aristotle all the way through to the end of the Middle Ages, the idea is that the group is what is important; one of the major passages in “Gargantua,” written by Rabelais in 1534 is very clear about this. It says that if you sacrifice the common good for the sake of your own good, your own personal interest, you will sacrifice both the common good and your own. So the idea of personal interest as being something that motivates social good is something which is completely rejected, and that’s something that I can definitely see as needed in modern society.

BrandeisNOW: Can you give any examples of this in modern society?

MR: Well just this whole idea for example of deregulation of many of the financial markets, of derivatives. You know Alan Greenspan had said that you didn’t need to regulate some of these markets because the individual operators would make sure that their personal interests were protected. By protecting their personal interests the general interest would also be protected. Obviously that did not work.  Another example is found in those people driving around in large cars that make them feel better and more powerful.  The cost to society is great for those people to exercise their own will.  We’re risking the whole environment by driving those kinds of cars. Once we’ve destroyed the environment there will be no personal interest since there won’t be anyone to have an interest in anything.

BrandeisNOW: Do you talk about this concept with your students?

MR: I bust their ears about this all the time.

BrandeisNOW: What classes are you teaching right now?

MR: I am teaching a class on Renaissance literature. We read Rabelais, we read Montaigne, we read lots of French poetry. And I’m also teaching a University Seminar.

We’ve heard that you enjoy watching students read Rabelais. Why is that?

MR: Rabelais is so different from modern writers. The language is difficult. But what’s really extraordinary about it is that it is very funny, very vulgar and very serious at the same time. And so what happens is that as you’re reading a difficult passage, which on the surface is incredibly funny and vulgar, and then students start to realize that Rabelais is actually saying is quite serious. Sometimes their mouths drop because the stuff is just so vulgar. But then the next passage is an extremely serious passage about a bible message or something like that. So you’ll have the juxtaposition of very vulgar, scabrous passages, and then very serious passages talking about theological issues.

BrandeisNOW: How do you keep the study of French history and comparative literature current for students? Is it challenging?

MR: No, not really. The reason why I do much of what I do is that the point is to make students aware of the past, of this distant, and sometimes odd, past, so they become more aware of what’s going on today. In other words, if they are just aware of what’s happening today, they don’t even realize that there is a today. Another way to understand that there’s a “today” is to realize that there is this incredibly long past. I think that their historical perspective gets widened, and at the same time their sense of what’s specific about today, also increases. So when we talk about a passage from Rabelais that talks about personal and common interest, we can then also talk about issues about what’s going on in the financial or political world today.

What’s next for you? Any new projects on the horizon?

MR: I’m actually starting a new project that I’ve been trying to get together the last few years.  The idea is to understand a basic concept from cognitive science in relation to a historical development in the 15th and 16th centuries in France.

BrandeisNOW: What sparked your interest in this topic?

MR: I’ve always been interested in cognitive science. But one of the distinctions that cognitive scientists make between a first person and a third person kind of consciousness doesn’t seem to work in medieval literature. Phenomenal consciousness is commonly associated with the first person, and psychological consciousness is associated with the third person point of view or voice. However, when you look at late Medieval and Renaissance poetry and writing, you realize it doesn’t always work. In the Middle Ages you could use the pronoun “I” (or  “je” in French) and that didn’t mean that there was what we could call a first person consciousness associated with that pronoun, with the “I.” Often that consciousness would be closer to what we associate with a third person point of view. I’m trying to show that the distinction between first and third person consciousness might be more historically determined than is sometimes believed. At least that’s what I think I’m going to show.  On verra.

BrandeisNOW: Is there anything else on your mind that you’d like to share?

I just hope that these financial difficulties that we are living through don’t compromise support of the humanities. I think it’s very important that we keep the humanities and the study of languages very much at the center of our world.

BrandeisNOW: What if that wasn’t the case? How would the world suffer?

MR: The study of language is one of the few ways that students can have what we’ll call a subjective understanding of another culture.  Often, when you analyze another culture in other fields of study, you’re study it from the outside, using the English language, using books about it. Whereas if you’re reading a text in a foreign language, you are confronted with that culture as it is confronted or seen by the people within the culture. So I think that it’s very important for us, as far as possible, to avoid mistakes in our confrontation with other societies in a global world. The study of language and foreign literatures and cultures plays an extremely important role in teaching us to avoid as many of these mistakes.

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