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Still searching for ‘the human’

Since taking up a research fellowship on the humanities in the age of technics at Amherst College in the United States for my sabbatical year, I have spoken with pride about the foresight of South Africa’s National Research Foundation and the department of science and technology back home.

My colleagues at Amherst, one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the US, were especially encouraged by my announcement that the research foundation had opted to broaden the allocation of research chairs to include humanists and social ­science scholars. This was more than could be expected in the US, especially in its public institutions where talk of crisis had cast an air of doom and gloom over the ­once-thriving intellectual pursuits of the humanities.

But then came last week’s announcement of the 60 new foundation research chairs (see “Science gets the chairs”, see below). A “palpable snub” is how the dean of the arts faculty at the University of the Western Cape broke the news to me. He was referring to the refusal to allocate even one of these chairs to the humanities.

In the haste common to our times, I shot off my protests through Facebook, soliciting support for my dismay and protest. I thoughtlessly proclaimed that, with the foundation’s decision, we in the humanities might as well pack our bags and go home. I was certainly overcome with despair — and the feeling of utter rejection deepened later in the week when a philanthropic organisation said a proposal on the subject of the humanities, submitted by the centre for humanities research at the University of the Western Cape for funding support, did not meet the new focus on early childhood education and youth unemployment. We were told that the work of the centre was best funded by the state.

Yet, from where I sat, the research foundation had not only overlooked the work that had gone into establishing the humanities as a major site of social inquiry in South Africa. It had also overlooked many of its own requirements for thinking critically about the concept of the human condition at the heart of research in a post-apartheid South Africa.

The priorities of a developmental state
In the days following the news of the foundation chairs it became clear that impulsive responses to the foundation’s decisions would not help to clarify matters pertaining to the future of research in South Africa. Rather than merely regret the decision of the foundation and the ­science and technology department, we should recognise that this appointment of chairs reveals both the priorities of a developmental state and the broader ­understanding of the place of the university in society.

At issue is not the need for scientific research or investment in technological development, but the re-cognition that we are in the process of remaking the university and its research priorities in South Africa. Critical to this rearrangement is the primacy that is given to the idea of the human condition.

If research at the institutional site of the university is to be directed towards alleviating the burden of the human condition, we should ask what conception of the human lurks behind this evocative phrase. Perusing the list of allocated research chairs, here is how I answered the question to myself.

The idea of the human condition that is signalled by the foundation relates to a lack, not a vitality, of life that seeks to alter the conditions of history. It is geared towards the rule of experts, not ultimately the task of thinking through the human condition towards an enabling concept of life. And, not surprisingly, the reason why the humanities are noticeably absent from the list may be explained to the extent that it produces a concept of the human condition not merely as an inheritance of underdevelopment, but as one specifically marked by a history of race, ethnicity, gender and class. The research foundation, it seems, was persuaded to attend to the more immediate demands of development and expertise rather than to deeper structural and psychic dimensions of ­humanistic enquiry.

To opt for the more immediate makes sense for the urgencies of state, but what does it mean for research in the long run?

Shorn of its connection to a history of race, ethnicity, gender and class, the human condition conceived as simply one in need of ­benevolent outreach threatens to obscure more than it reveals about the predicament of post-apartheid South Africa. In the framework of benevolent outreach, the frameworks of race and ethnicity are left undisturbed as the developmental outcomes of research assume priority.
The fact that development and underdevelopment are marked by history seems not to offer hope for solutions to the entrenched problems of society.

Means to an end
But by not interrogating the ­historicity of the human condition, the South African research community risks not knowing what it actually wants; it risks not debating the very “end” for which science and technology are merely, by their own account, the “means”.

The emptiness at the centre of the whole process ultimately forecloses the debate on the human condition, without which a post-apartheid public sphere is inconceivable. The cautionary tale should be the one that reminds us of the years of sheer courage and bitter struggle through which the experiment in racial formation of the human condition was overturned.

It is therefore important to ensure public scrutiny of the transformation of the idea of the university and research. In recent years, many scientists have argued for the need to remain connected to a public sphere, especially when their research is located at public universities and motivated by a desire to alter the human condition. Similarly, there is a growing expectation from public interests that scientific and technological advances should be justified by enhancing the human condition. The work of the Treatment Action Campaign is one example of this.

Another example of the demand for public accountability relates to nuclear research, which, although supposedly harnessed for the public good, seldom speaks about the waste that will result for the next 10?000 years from its creations.

Because scientific and technological research frequently also refers to the human condition as one beset by problems related to climate change and global warming, not to mention hunger and disease, public interest in their research projects needs to be enabled. Given the proximity of human subjects to research, we ought to strive to make the results of scientific research more readily available to our society at large, especially when these are funded and supported by the public purse. But, more importantly, we should ensure that the scientific research of our public universities places service to the public above the interests of ­private corporations.

If the human condition is at the core of increased funding of research initiatives in the sciences and technology, then studies in the humanities that are capable of ensuring the human condition is not rendered as self-evident — and therefore available for racial categorisation — are both desirable and necessary. It is grossly irresponsible to launch the careers of our youth in the directions of science and technology without also encouraging them to treat knowledge responsibly because it has powerful and lasting consequences. And we should not underestimate the complexity of this world, or the demands it is placing on the students who are entering the university.

A difficult story
Consider a random example from a humanities discipline in which I have been involved as lecturer for several years. Over the past few years, colleagues in the history department at the University of the Western Cape have taught first-year undergraduate students about the controversy surrounding the killing of the Xhosa king Hintsa and the alleged return of his skull in 1996. It is a difficult story, especially because the aim of the course is to open a ­discussion on the most violent aspects of our past to offer different ways of conceiving what it means to be human.

Every year, colleagues report on the anxieties expressed by students as they struggle for a specifically South African idiom for speaking about being human. As a society, we have burdened our youth to find their way out of the ruins of apartheid. We also expect them to discover for themselves different ways of thinking about the human condition, one that calls into question the claims of 19th- and 20th-century racisms.

All this when we, who have lived the consequences of apartheid, struggle to unravel racism’s deep structural and unconscious ­legacies. It is a challenge in which many students are prepared to engage even as they wrestle with its implications.

And yet, for many young people there is a habitual resort to inherited orthodoxies of notions of race and ethnicity, even when they are encouraged to work against these presuppositions. This surely must alert us to the responsibilities and complexities surrounding the human condition in South Africa and for which the study of the humanities is fundamental to any future research agenda.

Although technological solutions are urgently required to resolve the infrastructural imbalances of apartheid and scientific interventions to enhance the conditions of life, there are no technological solutions that will speed up the transformation of thinking. We need to find a way to attend to the legacies of authoritarianism and racism without abandoning our youth to confront this vile legacy of apartheid on their own.

First, we have to acknowledge that there are no short cuts and there is no straight line of flight from the racial formations in which we were once ensnared. Second, beyond the euphoria of what technology and scientific research can achieve for the developmental state, we should certainly not falter on the promise that we made to the world when, on the eve of the end of apartheid, we offered to chip away at the legacies of race and ethnicity that encrust the human condition.

The South African human
If we hold to the promise we made to the world about our commitment in this respect, we might also alleviate the burden, mainly borne by the youth, to discover for themselves a concept of the human couched in a specifically South African idiom.

In deciding whether and how research is to be supported in South Africa by the state, we cannot underestimate the task at hand. Nor can we leave it to a select number of disciplines, the vocabulary of which is being fundamentally rethought. The 20th century is replete with examples of both sophisticated and tardy thinking. Where sophisticated, it has produced life-enhancing conditions. But when tardy, it has often been overrun by a blind faith in science and technology that resolved the question of the human through histories of ­genocidal racial violence.

Think of Theodor Adorno’s reminder of those who “cleverly devised a train system that brought the victims to Auschwitz as quickly and smoothly as possible to their destination, but forgot about what happened to them there”. That, too, is the burden that the technological revolution places on the generation of youth now. They are required to think carefully about resolving the conundrum of the concept of the human and its national histories under conditions in which the technological apparatus has been sharpened through an expansive global military-industrial complex. And in South Africa that burden is compounded by the memory of apartheid and the mangled bodies it left in its aftermath.

In congratulating the many scientists and the handful of social science scholars and educationists who will be granted research chairs in this round of allocations, let us spare a thought for the concept of the human condition that we undertook as a responsibility by ending apartheid. The world we inhabit has failed dismally on this score for decades, in part because it has sought only technological and biological solutions to a problem that also requires more intense thought, contemplation and deliberation. I am sure that colleagues in the humanities will happily lend a hand in this respect, in as much as, in the years to come, there will still be a humanities to speak of in the ­university.

Professor Premesh Lalu is director of the University of the Western Cape’s centre for humanities research.

Science gets the chairs

The 60 new research chairs Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor announced last week take to 152 those in the government’s flagship South African Research Chairs Initiative, which is managed by the National Research Foundation.

The new chairs “have been awarded to various institutions of higher learning across South Africa during the 2011-2012 and 2013-2014 medium-term expenditure framework”, Pandor said.

The “five priorities of the government” dictated the choice of fields the chairs cover, she said. They are the creation of decent work and sustainable livelihoods, education, health, rural development and the fight against crime and corruption.

Among the new chairs are:

  • Four in education, some focusing on “challenges in higher ­education”. These add to the seven that focus mainly on primary and secondary education;
  • Twelve for health, on top of the existing 13, “with a strong focus on diagnostics and drug discovering”, and others in health policy and rural health development;
  • Seven in rural development, food security and land reform, adding to the existing three; and
  • One on the Square Kilometre Array, the project aimed at South Africa’s hosting of the world’s most powerful radio telescope, taking the total to 10.
  • Other areas awarded chairs include wine sciences, meat, coal, water, tax policy, agriculture, biochemicals, indigenous plant use and nuclear science.

Since the research chairs initiative began in 2005, the government had invested R1.1-billion in it, Pandor said. The programme aims to attract and retain excellence in research and innovation in South Africa’s science system by increasing the ability of universities to produce high-quality postgraduate students, research and innovation.

The institutions that will receive the new chairs include the universities of the Free State and Venda and three universities of technology — Cape Peninsula, Central and Durban. This means 21 universities, out of 23, now participate in the programme. Universities of technology, rural-based institutions and those that have not participated in the programme received “special consideration” in this round of allocation, Pandor said. — David Macfarlane

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