The following is a translation of a blog post written by Hampus Östh Gustafsson, Uppsala University, for the blog Humtank. The text was originally published in Swedish.
“The Centre Must Fall”: Reflections on Global Humanities
In this blog post, Hampus Östh Gustafsson describes the discussions on global opportunities and challenges held at the recent Making of the Humanities VIII conference in Cape Town. The troubled past of South Africa provided a special framework, and soon it became apparent that the notion of a crisis in the humanities is prevalent there as well. The polycentric focus of the conference, however, opened up new ways of addressing the history and current state of the humanities.
The fact that the conditions of the humanities vary in time and space should be a matter of course – yet, astonishingly little consideration is given to this trivial starting point. As a result, debates about the state of the humanities often become vague or miss their mark. Attempts have recently been made to approach the alleged crisis of these subjects in novel ways, focusing in particular on how an eventual crisis should be interpreted from a global perspective. Such comparative projects, however, come with many difficulties. In the same way that it is risky to speak of the humanities as a monolith, problems arise in connection with transnational comparisons of environments with varying academic systems and cultures of knowledge. Is it really the same categories that are being compared?
Against this background, scholars within the field of History of Humanities met on 21st–23rd November 2019 for a conference at the University of Cape Town. The initiators of the field have eagerly stressed an ambition to be globally inclusive. This year’s theme, “Decentralizing the Humanities”, was thus well chosen. In the following, I would like to recap some reflections that were raised during the conference. The choice of a location with such a troubled past contributed to an uncovering of new aspects of the history of the humanities. Still, it took until the last day of the conference before a question that everyone seemed to have awaited was finally put: should one not, in a country marked by racism, huge socioeconomic differences and a violent past, expect subjects such as history to be considered very important, making the notion of a crisis in the humanities irrelevant? The answer turned out to be far from obvious. On the contrary, a number of challenges faced by the African humanities were mentioned. For instance, one participant described how South African youths sometimes display a kind of fatigue when they are about to enter universities since they, in school, already have spent so much time on certain historical narratives, as if history is almost too present to have a positive effect on the state of the humanities.
The issue of a humanities crisis in South Africa has already been addressed in academic literature, for instance in the recent anthology The Changing Face of Higher Education: Is There An International Crisis in the Humanities? (Routledge, 2019), consisting of national case studies from all continents. The various chapters raise the question of whether it is meaningful at all to talk about a crisis in the humanities, or even to expect a yes or no answer to the question of whether there exists one. This is partly due to the fact that crisis narratives of the humanities are usually formulated in relation to notions of a golden age. In the case of South Africa, historian Keith Breckenridge pointed out how the history of the humanities within the academic system is briefer compared to many other former colonies as the universities were formally established after the First World War. Characteristic golden age narratives are thus missing, but nevertheless it turns out that South Africa has gone quite far regarding the issue of a “crisis”.
In 2013, the government even officially proclaimed that there was a crisis in the humanities. The action was prompted by a report submitted two years earlier by The Academy of Science of South Africa, describing a crisis based on scarce student enrolments and a lack government support. These problems are easily recognizable from Western discussions, but the report also identified a fundamental need for the South African humanities to reach out internationally. This touched upon a question discussed at the conference as several participants, working in different countries in the Global South, claimed to have great difficulties speaking with as strong a voice as researchers from the Global North. For example, representatives of the African Humanities Program presented their work to improve the conditions for African scholars, not least by creating incentives for accepting invitations to other universities on the continent instead of only seeing the prestige of visiting Western universities. At the same time, the international imbalance is reflected by inequalities within African academia where far from all scholars and students face the same opportunities.
That the academic world of South Africa is filled with tensions became very clear given that the conference was held on the campus where the eventually worldwide #RhodesMustFall movement began in 2015. Since then, harsh criticism has been directed against racism and an overly slow rate of change regarding the decolonialisation of academic institutions. One of the conference participants, literary historian John Higgins, recently noted in the anthology Poverty and Inequality: Diagnosis, Prognosis and Response (HSRC Press, 2019) how issues of, for example, academic freedom take on a special character in such an unequal society as South Africa. It must be taken into account that there are different types of inequalities, for example on an existential level, which the student protests made clear. Academic freedom is usually seen as an abstract right but then overlooks material conditions that might be decisive regarding who will be included and not.
Here, Higgins refers to the German 18th century university reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt. In debates on universities, it is common that categories such as academic freedom are being discussed with reference to Western traditions as if they were of universal validity. Similar problems were repeatedly highlighted in Cape Town. From a global point of view, there is an asymmetry regarding how the history of the humanities has been treated so far. For instance, in one of the conference’s keynote lectures, musicologist and composer Martin Scherzinger pointed out how Western music is usually studied from a variety of musicological perspectives while African music tends to be approached with anthropological methods. In another presentation on Khoisan studies, it was emphasised that African languages are regularly regarded as ancient and static due to an ahistorical attitude that current research needs to address. This problem derives from the fact that much African scholarship has grown out of colonial traditions.
The problem was addressed already in the first keynote lecture. In a nuanced way, sociologist Elisio Macamo discussed (not without influences from Baudrillard) how Africa can be made into an object of study without simultaneously becoming invisible, which tends to be the paradoxical effect when method and concepts are retrieved from other contexts. Macamo began by asking what he must sacrifice to be an African scholar, what it means to take on such an imposed (Western) identity. It has been difficult for African intellectuals to seriously protest against the colonial systems of knowledge. For example, the challenges were addressed in a panel discussion on how academic journals served as a kind of “gatekeeper” during the apartheid era and how one today may relate to an institutionalised production of knowledge that has been so exclusive. Macamo believed that African studies are needed precisely to teach us how to study Africa, but also to gain deeper insights into fundamental questions about the societal conditions of knowledge.
This conclusion was in line with the conference organisers’ request for polycentric perspectives, which may highlight other types of connections and parallels, ruptures and continuities. Global approaches can uncover widespread myths in the history of the humanities, for example narratives assuming that everything would have started with ancient Greece via Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment and so on. At the same time, the challenges are many when ascending onto a global level. Is it possible to access different knowledge centres in equivalent ways? Sometimes there is also a great lack of source material, although extensive discoveries have been made in recent decades, not least in Timbuktu. Such discoveries may, in the context of the polycentric expansion, contribute to novel ways of thinking, but it is essential to ensure that this does not stop at fluffy catch-words.
Somewhere at this point the discussions of the conference ended. So, what should we bring from there? Here I need to add that I spontaneously intended to give this brief conference report the title “The Center Cannot Hold”, but soon I realized that it would be both a cliché and insufficient – yet another proof of how difficult it is to tear yourself away from Western interpretive frameworks (although Yeats himself also reacted to a colonial power). Hopefully, the heading I finally selected better captures what the conference brought to light. The polycentric point of departure is a methodological call, but also concerns a basic ethical (self-)consciousness that should characterise any attempt to conduct research in the humanities. Not surprisingly, the question was thus asked, almost before the conference started, how sound it is to fly scholars across the globe in the time of climate crisis – a crisis particularly visible in Cape Town, whose water shortage recently became acute. In addition, the infrastructure was impaired due to airline strikes and cancelled trains, which meant that several participants never showed up.
I still hope that the conference fulfilled its mission: working as a contribution to a new kind of historiography. The global consciousness reminds us of the importance of uncovering geographical – but also historical – nuances when we talk about the societal role of the humanities and seek to develop successful claims for their justification. In fact, it is strange that many people seem to be looking for some kind of magical, universal key argument in defence of the humanities. Rather, we need different claims for their value, which may be combined in different ways depending on which problems that are being raised in specific contexts. We cannot expect the humanities to play the same part everywhere, always. That should be a central insight for anyone interested in the history of the humanities.
Hampus Östh Gustafsson, PhD student in History of Science and Ideas, Uppsala University.