Decolonising the humanities

(John McCann, MG)

(John McCann, MG)

What does it mean to pursue critical scholarship in the humanities and social sciences in a settler colonial society trying to move beyond the category "settler" and "native" towards becoming the citizenry bequeathed to us by our political settlement?

This is the question all South African universities share, however differently they were marked by apartheid. Its urgency is fuelled partly by the daunting demographic anxiety the humanities and social sciences face because of declining enrolment and the very worrying reality that we do not produce enough graduate students, particularly black South African PhD graduates.

These realities are made clear by two major reports published in 2011, one by the Academy of Science of South Africa, the other by a ministerial task team under the leadership of Ari Sitas and Sara Mosoetsa.

It is not South Africa alone that faces these challenges. The difficulties involved in being and deciding to become a humanities scholar and student are global in nature. In the post-colonial world, we are faced not only with the imperatives of narrowly defined "development", but also, the global North's market instrumentalism in an era of market fundamentalism and economic recession.

In this country, though, have we really confronted as scholars what the apartheid inheritance might mean? In a talk he gave in 2011 on satire and law, Judge Albie Sachs referred to a posture of critique that he described as "discomfort".

I have been thinking about how many of us voluntarily put ourselves in a position of discomfort in this sense. If we are to think of our inheritance as a history of privilege rather than subjection, or as a colonial genealogy of liberalism, paternalism and Eurocentrism, then how do we deal with the discomfort when others name us as such?

 Do we go there voluntarily, to this place of discomfort, or do we, as Sachs suggested, sometimes have to be nudged?

With our legacy, my question is: As humanities scholars, should we not be leading the critique of that inheritance of, on the one hand, the stubborn traces of "Bantu studies" and, on the other, a Eurocentrism that has still to realise that it is not universal but particular?  

Let me add a point of clarity: no race or ethnicity has the mono-poly on Eurocentrism in this country. In fact, Eurocentrism might be one of the few things that most South Africans actually share. Our Afrophobia has shown that quite well.

But there are scholars who seem to view any effort to address the legacy of Bantu studies or Eurocentrism as an immediate recourse to nativism. They see the need to hit the panic button of academic freedom to rescue us from ourselves when we talk about curriculum transformation in relation to Eurocentrism or apartheid.

In its most provocative formulation, my good colleague John Higgins, an esteemed professor of literature at the University of Cape Town, described one very important project to undo our inheritance, namely, some discussions that led to the Sitas/Mosoetsa team's ­"humanities charter", as a dangerous call for us to participate in "applied nationalism" ("Dilemma of the humanities", Mail & Guardian, June 24 2011).

No less than a founding father of post-colonial theory has been mobilised to settle the point conclusively — namely Edward Said — and particularly the TB Davie Memorial Lecture he gave at the University of Cape Town in 1991.

But it strikes me as more than a minor misreading of Said to think he is a persuasive hammer with which to smash nationalism in the colonial world, even if we qualify it as "applied". I suppose you can do that if you leave out the very real ambivalence, tension and subtlety that marked Said's Davie lecture, as it does his writing on nationalism more generally. But to leave that out surely goes against the grain of the literary criticism he so championed as a teacher, that of putting a text in context?

In that lecture, Said's starting point was a discussion of the "canon wars" that marked the humanities in the United States. He was clear that the US academy could not stay the way it was: it had to open itself up to other cultures, as he put it, and other traditions of thought and writing.

But he was issuing a warning, not about the dangers of leaving the canon untouched to protect the classics, as it were, but about the dangers of constituting those other, now newly valorised cultures and traditions and about what would happen if they became the new closed orthodoxy rather than subversive points of opening and connection. He made this point with an account of the lacklustre places that Arab universities have become.

It is curious to me why those who see Said only as a harsh critic of nationalism seem to recoil from that other Said, with his role in the Palestinian national liberation movement. How then do we make sense of Said's views on nationalism?

I suggest the clue lies in the distinction Frantz Fanon makes between "nationalism" and "national consciousness". It lies in the Fanon who said: "It is national liberation which leads the nation to play its part on the stage of world history. It is at the heart of national consciousness that international consciousness lives and grows. And this twofold emerging is ultimately the source of all culture. "National consciousness, which is not nationalism," he emphasises, "is the only thing that will give us an international dimension."

It is in Fanon's reading of national consciousness as a twofold process that rearranges the derangement that colonialism performs on the native that Said finds his argument: to be simultaneously for a process of national liberation yet simultaneously aware of and alert to its pitfalls.

But the pitfalls for Fanon and later for Said do not allow us to escape the problem that national consciousness is the answer to, namely the colonial problem or what we might call "the native question".

To make sense of Said being critical of nationalism, but for national liberation and for decolonisation, it is important to take note of what was at stake for him. Decolonisation was not for him about identity politics, about valorising Arab studies or African studies in and of themselves. Rather, it was about justice, as it also was for Fanon.

The pitfalls of identity politics, as both saw it, do not then remove the very real question of justice that remains with regard to the colonial question. The devalorisation of native thought, its debasement and dismissal, is in the first instance, then, a wrong that must be righted.

The pitfalls arise when the righting of the wrong inflicts its own injustice on others, when one identity trumps others, when justice simply means turning the picture upside down, so that those at the bottom now stand above those at the top.

It was this danger that Said was alerting us to.

So, hitting the panic button of academic freedom will not save us in the humanities and social sciences from the discomfort of having to confront the problem of justice in our society. I mean "justice" here to include undoing the devalorisation of intellectuals, of thought, of knowledge and aesthetics outside the Western tradition as constituted in the modern disciplines around which the university is structured. Here I am referring to those devalorised traditions of thought and intellectuals not only in Africa, but also in most of the world, in the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and Latin America.

A cursory glance at the limited expertise in our humanities and social sciences bears testimony to this devalorisation. Although we rightly try to undo the Euro-American hegemony by making Africa a focus, let us not end there. I have learnt through my participation in the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa over the past decade, from those who have been through these debates a long while before us and have much to teach us, that we need to have in our midst scholars who also study areas and issues outside Africa and the Euro-American sphere, so that we can learn to ask the questions that matter to us, as we learn from the questions that matter to them.

That is, we need scholars who can tell us about concept of Shi in the propensity of things in Chinese philosophical thought in the Middle Kingdom, or illuminate the aesthetics of great modernist figures such as the painter MF Hussain or the poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz in India, or help us to navigate Iranian cinema before and after the revolution, or provoke us to re-theorise the distinction between the secular and sacred, through understanding Candomblé as practised by the povo do santo (people of the saint) in Brazil.

We also need scholars who can tell us about the organisation of political authority in the Funj dynasty in Sudan or the Sekoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria, or the Rajput relations with the East India Company in India, not simply because of a historical and anthropological curiosity about pasts forgotten or cultures obscured, but because, as scholars have been pointing out recently, those accounts are actually central to understanding the emergence of modern thought and concepts that govern our present ways of thinking.

It is not about saying: "They have their philosophers, so let's show them that we have our philosophers too." It is about disrupting the autobiography of how the West tells its story about itself and it is about producing a less imperial, more democratic and inevitably more violent version of how we arrived at our modernity.

As scholars, we should lead the critique of the humanities and social sciences we have inherited by pointing to its limitations.

Without this self-critique, renewal will not happen and without renewal the humanities and social sciences in post-apartheid South Africa will continue to be less and less compelling for our students and held in more and more suspicion by our political elites.

If the fate of the humanities and social sciences in this country becomes a Chronicle of a Death Foretold, then it will be a story authored not only by the market, but also, in no small measure, by us.

Suren Pillay is a senior researcher at the centre for ­humanities research at the ­University of the Western Cape. This is an edited version of his recent presentation to the Africa, Reading, Humanities seminar series convened by the University of Cape Town's english department

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

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