Strolling is Not an Option


Physicists are in demand again. Unlike the coders they hone a ‘skill set’ necessary for creating new technologies, and hence, new jobs. That, in case we had forgotten, is the capacity to play with abstract thought and apply such thought masterfully into practice. Programmers are not trained in linear algebra and probability theory. Physicists are. For the new wave of data science and neural research to take root in a real world situation, we need to have an enormous capacity to ‘imagine’ abstraction.

Literature majors will do well to consider this aspect. In India, we now stand at a critical crossroad, as far as the humanities are concerned. The State is creating a situation so that literature departments are either forced to turn into small-scale entrepreneurships for providing a set of skills for proficiency and/or help set-up a finishing school kind of an ambience for prospective customer-students. Research work is being systematically stymied. As a result, neither are the traditional fields being nourished and updated nor is real innovation happening in charting fresh fields. There is no genuine breakthrough, though there is plenty of scope given the new scholarships and literary productions. We mostly follow the funding trail. Hence digital humanities, world literature, new materialisms, the post-critical and such like make the rounds. Moreover, in India, political expediency often forces humanities departments to pay lip service to a kind of feel good pragmatic radicalism, as if that amounts to taking on all that is ossified. But pragmatic forms of radical stances eat up our institutes from within, bit by bit. Conservatives are only too happy to give such expedient radicalism a space in the hierarchy, a slice of the pie. The blithe and sunny radicals understand this calculation quite well.

Such games are as old as the academe. But the shrillness and flagrancy with which these adjustments are now being made in the humanities circuits is indeed quite stark. The real worrying matter is that many of the old hands, who used to nurture the skill to steer us in such situations, are either dejected, have departed the scene or are tentatively making compromises with the altered situation of privatized education. The humanities community stands fragmented.

The situation is further complicated for reasons that are also internal to the humanities. Right through the second half of the last century, what was called interdisciplinary and/or culture studies were methods that the humanities had adopted from the social sciences. Those methods, valuable as they are, set their focus on ‘critical tools’ which primarily dealt in matters social as far as literary studies go. It became difficult to benchmark aesthetics or rhetoric as judgmental fulcrums for reasons of analysis or felicity, even if one were sensitive to social concerns or preoccupations of a novel or a non-fiction piece. As a result some genres, almost wholesale, went underground. There is hardly a humanities department in India that can boast a worthy program for the systematic study of poetry or epic. I shall be genuinely happy to find teachers in our public universities who can, through their thorough training, metrically scan poems or have a sense of the evolution of the language they are dealing in.

On the other hand, and riding on this grievance, there is now a conservative backlash which wishes to resuscitate old school philological study and the close reading of texts for the sake of it. The problem is that literary conservatism’s solid set of skills that relies on a kind of renewed practical criticism is also inherently suspicious of abstraction. Old school lit-crit is notoriously suspicious of intellectual abstraction—which goes by the name of this pejorative word in their lexicon: theory. Lit crit puritanism is also suspicious of any invested exercise in new fields which may expand the scope of humanities and could at the same time question both received wisdom and the status quo. There is a scholarly and critical oeuvre now available in fields ranging from popular literature, to performance studies to queer literature. But much depends on how we select, curate and administer such areas and deepen the humanities. For this to happen we need consultation. One suspects however that sooner or later we shall rather see a combination of industry friendly philological study and language training in the new humanities departments mushrooming in private universities. Critical studies will gradually be forced to take a back-seat or will be cushioned with a kind of cheery new-cosmopolitanism that is at once open to the demands of a protectionist nation. This chimes perfectly with the desires of our severely anti-intellectual times. The philologists have always gone with the market, paying only lip service to the idea of critical public education. The form of liberalism practiced (if at all) in most new institutions is therefore conservative rather than progressive. Naturally humanities shall become more a value-based enterprise rather than being politically and critically interventionist. It shall increasingly thrive by detaching life from institutional practice.

In the Indian universities, wide scaled consultation and any genuine vision for a pedagogical breakthrough for setting up of research goals are rare. We usually go by our understanding of the reigning dispensation and mood of the institutional demand at a given moment in time. Much about the curriculum anyway arrives at the universities and colleges from regulatory bodies like the UGC, which are peopled by behemoths of humanities studies, people who are usually distant from anything academic.

Given such a situation, what are our options?

First, we must continue to bargain as much as possible within institutional space, in the hope that there are still well meaning people who will participate in the process for the love of literature. Second, it is necessary to identify a set of researchers, teachers and students who are passionate enough about humanities to join and take forward the debates. The idea is to create and nurture another sort of network, slowly and steadily over a period of time. Third, though we must be sensitive to the demands of ground realties, we must not, at any cost, give in to dumbing down and sensationalizing of the curriculum and research work. Dumbing down in any discipline means we are depriving students of fundamental skills and making them rickety. Sooner or later, a generation of learners will pay the price. It also means we are undervaluing and undermining the intelligence of the young minds of the country. Finally, we must keep aside some space to set up non-institutional mechanisms simultaneously. Reading groups and study circles, literary meetings outside of academia, reaching out to writers and poets, creating and disseminating literature through blogs and pamphlets and so on can go a long way in complementing academic space.

Strolling is not an option. Not for the nation. Not for the humanities.



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Prasanta Chakravarty teaches English in Delhi University and edits Humanities Underground

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