Humans and humanities —Sarah Humayun

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Criticism, like love, demands speaking and doing that is equal to the loved one. This is why people often feel, and resent, that more than a judgement on their technical abilities is involved in literary criticism. This is true, and there is no way to escape it

It is interesting that articles appearing these days in the leading national papers about the state of higher education all tend to mention the neglect of the humanities. But the mechanical way in which this subject is prodded and then passed over suggests that it isn’t given enough of a thought.

Certainly there is a need to evaluate educational efforts from time to time and point out the lacunae. But there is also need to look at the inherent requirements of disciplines, so that we can say, when next we have the chance, what can be meaningfully done about them.

The humanities are not the easiest subjects to know what to do about. Even in the west, they are perceived with increasing bafflement. I was at a talk the other day where the Crisis in the Humanities was under discussion. Usually these things begin with diagnostic genealogies, and the speaker claimed the severance from theology, the parent human science, as the original trauma. After that, the humanities never quite found an anchor again. He was grilled thoroughly on this.

Wasn’t it more accurate to say that the history of the humanities was a history of crises? Isn’t crisis the norm rather than an exception? What would, for instance, a stable philosophy look like?

The speaker countered by insisting that the instability in the humanities was not the ‘normal’ one, in which each discipline is interrogated from within and without. It concerns the perception of humanities as being a redundant and expensive enterprise, which makes no measurable contribution to human society. Hence the desperate and clumsy efforts to measure them; the demands that academics quantify their work in terms of publications and conferences, the insistence on the fulfilment of formal and sometimes empty criteria derived from the sciences.

The upshot was that the value of a tradition was in doubt, even if the tradition itself was one of self-questioning and dissent. And that tradition passes on more than knowledge; it also transmits the desire to have knowledge of this particular kind, and the ability to use it.

The humanities as they are practised today do owe much to their coming into their own in a world which was shaped by a sort of theological crisis. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the divinely created world is by definition a human world. But as the conviction grew that the world may not be created with humans in mind, the human as an independent phenomenon became central. And so did the non-human. What would the world look like if we were not there to see it? Can we know what other people are like, given that we cannot be in their place, be them as it were?

These questions, the bread and butter of philosophical exercises today, would make no sense without a belief that the humanness of humans is something that needs to be figured out. Doubt, dissent, debate, which were part of the theological tradition, now became tools of a different kind. They could be used creatively; you never knew where they might lead you, and you could never ignore their results, even if they seemed inimical to everything else you knew and valued. They were your best chance at truth.

It is in this sense that the humanities were the precursors of science. But there has always been another element within the humanities. This is to pay attention to your own response as a way of knowing objects. Admittedly a difficult idea, it nevertheless forms the basis of much work done in the humanities, and is one way of understanding what goes by the name of literary and art criticism. Each object of reflection has its own truth, and must be entered into, relived from within, if it is to be understood. And it is in reflecting on it that we relive the object, separate its reality from our illusions.

People feel moved to do so because certain objects, like works of art, seem to demand this kind of attention and reorientation. This perhaps links up with the ordering and transforming force of the object of love in the theological tradition. Criticism, like love, demands speaking and doing that is equal to the loved one. This is why people often feel, and resent, that more than a judgement on their technical abilities is involved in literary criticism. This is true, and there is no way to escape it. In this way the humanities can be forms of what Wittgenstein called work on oneself.

And this is why it may be futile to speak of the humanities as if they can be straightforwardly classified and enlisted in an agenda of progress. They are inherently unpredictable, risky, problematic, and to have more of them you would need to have more of the things that make them possible.

What might they be? A desire to read and write and talk for their own sake might be among them. Or a spirit of curiosity and adventure, something like what Auden meant:

Not to lose time, not to get caught,

Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble

The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water

Or stone whose conduct can be predicted

There are surely others. I wish I could hear more about this, rather than declarations from press-pulpits that we should pay more due respect to these subjects. As if we could say what was their due.

Sarah Humayun is a freelance journalist who lives in and away from Lahore

Reproduced by permission of Daily Times\11\10\story_10-11-2008_pg3_3

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