Humanities in the age of extremes

By reiterating inclusivity, human dignity, interspecies collaboration and coexistence, Humanities helps speak truth to power

By Author  |  Pramod K Nayar  |  Published: 19th Jul 2020  12:06 amUpdated: 18th Jul 2020  10:29 pm

The Covid Age is an “age of extremes”, to borrow Eric Hobsbawm’s title. It has revealed the extremes within and around which the world lives, or dies: extremes of scale (economy, health, education, employment), extreme forms of power, extremes of alienating language and discourses, of conditions of life itself, to mention a few. We witness extreme deprivation, alienation, neglect, trust deficit and paucity of knowledge.

In this situation of “in extremis”, what can the Humanities still do? A recent piece begins with “the coronavirus pandemic inevitably puts the humanities at a disadvantage”, before citing Oxford dons, medical humanities scholars, directors of major associations and organisations, all of whom state unequivocally that Humanities is indispensable now. Humanities offers us “the power to question assumptions, reframe narratives and undermine foundational truths”, as Sara Guyer put it in her Times Higher Education column. If “in extremis” is the state we live in, how does the Humanities deal with it?

Humanities and Power

Humanities locates and treats the “extremes” as emerging from specific modes of deployment of power: the power to discriminate, classify, represent and contest, where classes, ethnicities, genders and races are subject to indignity, suffering, privileges, rights or deprivation based on how they have been documented, represented and catalogued by science, political discourse and economic principles. The Humanities, interested in the ways of talking about the human, has been interested in power, for power enables the making and unmaking of humans. Power’s processes, languages of discrimination, the power asserted by the imagination and the powers asserted over the imagination, the power of concepts, are the subjects of the Humanities.

For the Humanities, the principles of classification (racial, for instance), the attribution of values (economic productivity, as an instance) and the often unequal comparisons (ableism, for example), are key domains of analyses. The construction of certain social and cultural values that then determine who counts (or doesn’t count) as human is a particularly significant field of analysis.

The human sciences (psychology, social sciences, psychiatry) increasingly create people that did not exist before, argues Ian Hacking, the philosopher of science. That is, modes of classification, from mental health disorders to definitions of dementia, draw on and produce new concepts and definitions that did not exist before. Hacking notes that “there were no multiple personalities in 1955; there were many in 1985”, and “there were no high-functioning autists in 1950; there were many in 2000”, signalling the rise and dominance of new ways of speaking about humans.

The work of Steven Sabat and Tom Kitwood, reassessing dementia and the dementing process, is an instance of Humanities scholars prising open the power of certain disciplines, institutions and social apparatuses that make up humans in certain ways. The rise of “neurochemical selves” (Nikolas Rose) and the (over)reliance on neuroscience is also subject to scrutiny, as  the volume Critical Neuroscience demonstrates admirably — instantiating the interest of Humanities scholars in the structures of power that “make up” humans.

In all these studies, Humanities is examining power, and the ways in which humans are produced, life and death defined, the limits of rationality or intelligence quantified so that we begin to see and experience the human in certain ways.

Language and Representation

The languages and representations of not just illness but vulnerable bodies (individual and collective), notions of contagion and transmission, naturalised and embedded violence are the subject of Humanities, which treats language as a key instrument for power to operate in. Language may discern, but it also discriminates and attributes social value. It can naturalise artificially created constructs so that cultural practices become “natural”, preordained and stable.   We can see how Humanities is interested in the power of language, concepts and representation with three unique examples.

Take the specialised language of digital maps. Studies of the World is Witness of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum show how mapping is in fact “organisational rhetoric” through which “geographies are mapped and produced to illustrate spatial injustice”. Joshua Ewalt notes that by classifying specific places on earth as “naturally” inclined towards violence – because the “barbarian” natives are predisposed to violence – a larger political process and power is being instituted. The map “naturalizes the African continent, primarily Rwanda, Darfur, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as spaces of destructive violence”. While the Museum states that it will “use tools such as Google Earth and animated maps to enable citizens to understand Holocaust history and to bear witness to current threats of genocide across the globe”, the map’s language facilitates and is rooted in military-interventionist discourse that justifies all sorts of action by the First World in places such as Africa.

Next, terms such as “contagion” and “infection” have specific histories. Margaret Pelling examining the histories of these concepts and terms writes in “The Meaning of Contagion”:

“The term ‘infection’ has a root meaning ‘to put or dip into something’, leading to inficere infectio, staining or dyeing. This is a further reminder that ‘an infection is basically a pollution’. The same is true not only of ‘contagion’, but also of the noun ‘miasma’, which derives from the Greek verb miaino, a counterpart to the Latin inficere. Impurity is therefore a basic element in all three concepts.”

Shame, guilt and pollution, shows Pelling, were associated with disease in Christian-Western thinking, and the vocabulary instantiates this. It helped confine and regulate people, for the Church and the medical profession empowered to administer such policies, based their functioning on these definitions and concepts. In short, the very idea of contagion and, therefore, of distancing, testing, quarantining and treatments served these power structures.

A final example is from eugenics. In the racy, popular fiction of Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs and JM Ballantyne, eugenics and the hierarchisaton of races works as a subtext. Here is London in A Daughter of the Snows, his first novel:

“We are a race of doers and fighters, of globe-encirclers and zone-conquerors. We toil and struggle, and stand by the toil and struggle no matter how hopeless it may be. While we are persistent and resistant, we are so made that we fit ourselves to the most diverse conditions. Will the Indian, the Negro, or the Mongol ever conquer the Teuton? Surely not! The Indian has persistence without variability; if he does not modify, he dies, if he does try to modify he dies anyway. The Negro has adaptability, but he is servile and must be led.”

Contemporary readings by Ewa Barbara Luczak discern an “eugenically motivated plot”. It is this kind of literature – in which, occupying an ambiguous location in the canon, would be Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – that demonstrates an unquantifiable but palpable language of eugenics and genetic racism. When, for instance, we situate London’s passage above with the following statement by Julian Huxley in his 1947 pamphlet UNESCO: Its Purpose and Its Philosophy, we see how language is a prime influencer of opinions, organisations and politics:

“it is . . . of the greatest importance to preserve human variety; all attempts at reducing it, whether by attempting to obtain greater racial “purity” and therefore uniformity within a so-called race or a national group, or by attempting to exterminate any of the broad racial groups which give our species its major variety, are scientifically incorrect and opposed to long-run human progress…”

Language determines social and cultural discourse, to shape the imaginations of millions of readers. While undoubtedly influenced by their historical contexts, the literary texts also contribute to the history-in-the-making by becoming either endorsers or opponents of circulating views, such as on eugenics and race-based hierarchies. The task of Humanities scholars, therefore, is to show how these texts and their powerful (public) language of racial selection and hierarchies, of racism and anti-Semitism, patriarchy and ageism, operate.

Visions and Revisions

Orwell envisioned a “Big Brother” state. Religion texts envision a heaven. Constitutions envision the equality of all citizens. Dystopian and utopian visions, in literature, religious texts and political tracts are a part and parcel of how we come to experience our world because these shape our perceptions, and the language in which we speak and think about the world. In the age of extremes, the apocalyptic and “extinction” visions have powerful generative roles: they generate anything and everything from hope to despair.

Apocalyptic visions mark the public discourses around Covid 19. One headline asked: “apocalypse again?” Reporting on Eastern Congo, not yet recovered from the 2018 outbreak of Ebola and in a state of regular civil strife, The Economist titled its piece “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. Another spoke of the “Apocalyptic Covid-19”. The apocalyptic vision and imagination determines how we see the range, consequences and teleology-etiology (the language merges the two) of the pandemic.

Visions giving hope, directions and directives to governments and the people they govern, or a moral compass are aplenty in the modern era. To take just one example, the vision of inherent human dignity and the indisputable, inalienable right to dignity by virtue of being human, is enshrined across constitutions.

The Preamble to the Indian Constitution speaks of “fraternity, assuring the dignity of the individual”. The German Constitution in Article 1 declares: “human dignity is inviolable”. In Article 2, it adds: “The German people therefore acknowledge inviolable and inalienable human rights as the basis of every community, of peace and of justice in the world”. The Helsinki Accords (1975) claim that human rights “derive from the inherent dignity of the human person”. The twentieth century’s most important document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), says in the opening lines of the Preamble:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,…”

It would elaborate later:

“Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom…”

These are all visions, and hugely influential. It is these texts and visions that assert, or ought to assert, their role now more than ever when “disposable” people and the already vulnerable lack both dignity and care in the age of extremes.

In the age of extremes, with the rhetoric of “states of exception” and “permanent crisis”, the Humanities scholars return to foundational questions of human dignity and human rights, to reread texts that shape our social attitudes and behaviour – from selfishness to altruism – our perception of diseased and vulnerable bodies, of social iniquities that are naturalised so that many die less due to Covid-19 than due to the discourses that rendered them outside the pale of diagnostic tests, treatments and care.

Reiterating inclusivity, human dignity, interspecies collaboration and coexistence is the province of the Humanities, particularly in the age of extremes. Rethinking the illusion of the earth as our property alone demands the Humanities. Species cosmopolitanism as a generative vision comes primarily from literature (and evolutionary biology). That we lead entangled lives with other lifeforms and non-living matter is a vision that comes from anthropologists and philosophers, and has never been more relevant than in the age of extremes.

The real crisis would be if we assume that the Humanities no longer matter. To speak truth to power – any kind of power – requires the Humanities.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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