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Thematic Introduction

An idiom of ‘crisis’ inflects the ongoing conversations about the state of the humanities in different parts of the world today. Perhaps it has been like this for some time. There is no doubt that the renditions of ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this state vary from location to location. At one level inadequate policies, dearth of resources, and narrow instrumental visions have negatively affected the humanities education in different continents. But at a deeper level the idea of the humanities with its dominant philosophical provenance has created difficulties for its creative mobilization and stifled its elaboration.

Like many other categories associated with the emergence of the modern West, the idea of the humanities has both enabled and disabled conversations about the role of the arts in the global community. There is no doubt that the concept of the humanities- and the practices and institutions surrounding it, has enabled global conversations by establishing the centrality of imaginative works in the making of democratic subjects and collective living. Even in those countries in the Global South where the discourse of the future is often associated with ‘development’, modern technology, and science, the humanities have survived against the wishes of the technological state, sometimes by invoking the prestige of value-free science or, in some instances, claiming association with the ideas and ideals of ancient civilizations, real or imagined.

These debates become even more complicated when we turn to the role of the humanities in the Global South. Here, we find elites, many of them products of colonial or Euro-American universities, who see the arts–and invest in them–as part of their will to be modern subjects in the European sense of the word. In the former colonial universities that still hold much sway in the Global South, the humanities are celebrated as insignias of the colonized elites’ mastery of European high culture often at the expense of the larger human experiences that are embodied in the everyday lives of those excluded from these privileged centers of learning. At the same time, the humanities are institutionally separated from the technological institutions and developmental paradigms that are assumed to embody the imagination of a postcolonial future. In this context, the bureaucratic elite in the Global South is impatient, indifferent, or hostile toward the humanities as an integral part of the modernizing project, considering them a luxury or surplus that “underdeveloped” economies cannot afford. How, then, can we imagine the humanities in a global frame? How can we imagine conversations about the arts across cultures?

Acknowledging that the humanities cannot be reduced to a single episode in European history, or to be confined to a select set of authors and text written in Italy or Northern Europe in the late 16th century; can be a good starting point. But a far more productive approach is to rethink and re-theorize European Humanism itself in order to understand its unspoken presuppositions and its subterranean connections to other worlds. For a while Humanism may have been an important conduit for the invention of Europe (a point recognized by Desiderius Erasmus, the crown prince of the Christian Humanists), it can also be interpreted as a sign of what Dipesh Chakrabarty has called the provincialization of Europe. Reading Humanism in a global context, for example, exposes it to the destabilizing forces of globalization in the early modern period. Read as an outward, rather than an inward, looking project, European Humanism emerges under the pressures of the tensions between the European city-states and the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of the new World and early European encounters with Africa and Asia. It is within this context that some of the central writers in this tradition (Montaigne, for example) struggle to understand the status of the emergent categories of the self and the other within the expanding networks of global trade and cultural contact. The epic texts of the period (Luís Vaz de Camões, Os Lusíadas or Miguel Cervantes’s Don Quixote) are generated by the Portuguese and Spanish voyages in Africa. A crucial turning point in the emergence of European Humanism is the discovery of ancient Greek texts (most prominently Aristotle) in Arabic translation. What does it mean to return Humanism to its global conditions of possibility? What would its project look like reading from below–from the sites in the Global South that constitute what, after Frederic Jameson, we would call its political unconscious?


But is provincializing Europe enough in thinking about the humanities across cultures? Doesn’t the word itself already carry within it the claims and counter-claims of the European colonizing project in the last five hundred years? Students of the Global South cannot escape the fact that they are products of the European project of rule and control, a project in which the idea of culture came to play an indispensable role. In fact, there is a theoretical and pragmatic aspect to the role of the humanities in a colonial situation. Colonialism is a theoretical project: it classifies peoples, taxonomizes languages, and universalizes its authorized cultural practices. Each of these tasks is carried through disciplinary formations–anthropology, history, comparative religion, and philology–that manufacture colonial subjects in a subjunctive role. And within the context of what Fanon famously called a ‘dying colonialism’, the humanities are as important as the sciences in either holding back the colonized subjects’ will to freedom or redirecting it. The pragmatic dimension to the role of the humanities in colonial governmentality is equally important. Orientalist philology is inseparable from the idea of the law; English is the discipline through which Macaulay’s “mimic men” are produced; colonial anthropology mediates the crisis of the colonial space. The humanities, rather than the sciences, are the authorized disciplines in the colonial sphere. And while decolonization leads to their loss of prestige, the humanities do not simply disappear; rather, they exist as a resource for new modes of social control. In postcoloniality, local elites need philology or comparative religion to justify new forms of cultural fundamentalism; they need European languages to enforce their exceptionalism; they need history and literature as a handmaiden of power. On the surface, postcolonial elites do not seem to care much about the humanities until they need texts and theories to justify sectarianism, ethnic prejudice, and caste privilege. Even genocides come to be justified through invocations of identities and differences produced by ancient texts.


This negative history may support the views of those scholars who believe, with Fanon, that our task is to find a way outside this Europe where they are never done talking of the human, yet murder human beings “everywhere they find them, at the corner of everyone of their own streets, in all the corners of the world.” Escaping from Europe and its Humanism might relieve us of its burdens and anxieties and open up a critical engagement with the role of the system of the arts in other parts of the world. What is the vision of a humanities that emerges out of Chinese, Arabic, African, Indian, and Meso-American traditions? Can new, broader ideas, about the humanities enable a rethinking of locality as a resource for conversations across cultures rather than the source of anxieties about nation and region? Can we recuperate classical texts and practices as means to humanistic ends rather than instruments of justifying domination? And what would the institutional structures for this global humanities look like? Affirming the idea of the humanities on a global scale is a significant step in getting out of the “savage slot” (Michel-Rolph Trouillot) and recognizing the Global South as a site for the articulation and the re-articulation of the human. Theories may travel or change, but the human subject remains consistent.


We see this conference as an invitation and a challenge for concentric conversations about the humanities in a world where ideas and ideals seem to be under constant threat both from the relentless process of globalization and the reemergence of nationalism: What would an idea of the humanities outside Humanism look like? How do ideas of the humanities travel and circulate in the world? What are the humanities good for, especially in places grappling with the challenges of bare life? Can we still trust an aesthetic education to produce moral subjects and to create new publics? How are the humanities connected to current theories on the environment, law, and justice? How do the humanities interact with the sciences in the age of new technologies? What is the role of texts and textual practices, including translation, in the production or rethinking of conversations across cultures? How have the humanities been theorized in different parts of the world? It is our hope that these leading questions might enable us to respond to Fanon’s challenge at the end of The Wretched of the Earth: “For Europe, for ourselves, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man [person].”