16 November 2010

Recovering The Humanities, Revitalizing Democracy

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma  --  15 November, 2010  --  Countercurrents.org

There was a time, not very long ago, when the humanities were under attack. Now they are just ignored. It is as if the case for 'job-oriented' education (to use a tasteless phrase that rules the journalistic writings on education these days) had been decisively and finally won. So long as someone was speaking against the humanities, a dialogue –howsoever worn-out and tattered– was at least alive, though not with any great kicking life. But a silence now reigns over the fate of the humanities.

It is a symptomatic silence. Symptomatic because it comes at a time when cultural commodities become most expensive and attract increasing investment under the shadow of speculation. As canny communicators and cool gurus swarm the cultural marketplace, it is nevertheless being proclaimed that an education in the humanities no longer pays.

While the humanities shrink and decay in their old homes in colleges and universities, new institutions –private, corporate– prosper, spinning money out of a booming culture industry. Clearly, cultural production has become a protected economic activity for an elitist minority that collaborates with corporate media to produce culture for consumption by the masses.

Timely infusion of critical funding could have renovated the old homes of humanities and built them into competitive sites of cultural production. But this was not done. Why? One can speculate. Along with marketable cultural production these sites might have spawned some unwelcome offspring: critique and dissent. Something the corporate education apparatus can be relied on to kill before birth. ‘Reforms’ in their first, fragile blossoming couldn’t have been exposed to any menace, least of all to seductions of forbidden knowledge.

The National Knowledge Commission's professions of love for good old humanities for the sake of a better future are already rotting in mouldy archives. And the spectacular dream of resuscitating the Nalanda University, with its international cast of star faculty and wages in dollars, mocks the great old Nalanda's soul: that becoming, not being, is the truth. Institutions are not made of bricks and mortar alone but of ideas and the free, questing spirit that animates them. In its erasure of the boundaries between the past and the present, Project Nalanda avows the refusal to face either. A strange avowal. Uncanny, to be precise.

How do we go about the task of recovering the humanities? Certainly not by trying to dig out of burial some pristine version of them. In the humanities, as elsewhere, we must affirm 'becoming'. And in our time, that affirmation ought to be performed democratically and for democracy. The humanities must today be recovered as the democratic trial of truth(s). For too long have we, the children of modernity and enlightenment, stood guard over an idea of democracy that brooks no fundamental interrogation. At the very least, the humanities can begin to revitalize democracy through their textual practices, as they have been famously doing for several decades now, in which the enactment and trial of democracies take place. These simple and basic exercises can pave the way for a larger mobilization of thought dedicated to our common democratic futures. Otherwise, government by management will completely erode and replace government by democratic politics.

Yet for this to materialize, the space of the humanities must be protected against brutal depredations of the market. The law of the market is not a natural law, notwithstanding the appearances concocted by an ideologically committed corporate media. In an era of cognitive capitalism when creativity becomes a premium input for profit maximization, we need to restore some sanctity to the Holy Muse and learn to deposit our mundane calculations outside the portals of its shrine. Only then shall we hear other voices. Only then shall we be able to speak in other tongues. Democracy's survival demands nothing less.

Rajesh Kumar Sharma teaches literature and theory in the Department of English, Punjabi University. He also edits South Asian Ensemble. You can reach him at sharajesh@gmail.com.

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