Within the circles of literary theory, he is arguably as talked about as his atomic scientist namesake. Homi K. Bhabha is the Anne F. Rothenberg professor of the Humanities, the director of the Humanities Center at Harvard and author of many publications on cultural and literary theory.
In a world where to be respectable you must adopt a scientific approach, what can Humanities teach us?
Today, there is really a flood of information. What the humanities as a set of disciplines has always encouraged, is to see how important interpretation is. Facts don’t speak for themselves because everybody is massaging the facts one way or the other. It is not a dishonest thing but everybody represents facts in a particular way. So what humanities does, is it takes information and through the process of interpretation turns it into knowledge.
Is there a simple framework that you use as a first step to starting a process of interpretation?
Yes! The first step to start an interpretation is to look at the density of information. I would not look where somebody makes an outrageous statement, or [puts out] outrageous statistics. Where you have a build-up of facts is where I would start active interpretation. Through that active interpretation you can build up a knowledge system and say, on the basis of studying these facts — which have certain density, some are right, some are wrong — I begin to get a picture [of] how this particular problem is constituted or where I need to go to explore this problem.
But from whose point of view should one analyse the issue? The shareholder, the citizen….
The great tradition of humanistic scholarship over several hundred years says it should be for the benefit of mankind. The benefit of mankind suggests that the benefits be open to as many people as possible without silencing those who may be in minority. Without this you won’t have democratic processes. “Who is benefitting from this?” If this question cannot be posed freely, you cannot have a democratic society.
Take for instance, long working hours. If your job demands [that] of you, involuntarily, you work 17 hours a day; but it will have huge implication on your personal life. That needs to be addressed. This issue, for instance, came up on the highest level in the UK, when many Parliamentarians said, “These parliamentary sessions go on for so long because somebody wants to raise an issue. Sometimes we are getting three or four hours of sleep, we are not able to return to our families in the evening, we neglect our important commitment to our families, to our communities because the way our job is structured, we are there late into the night. This cannot be a good way.”
Why don’t people like you raise this in a public debate? In earlier times Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre engaged in public debates over crucial issues.
I, myself am a great admirer, like you, of that period and those public debates. I think what has happened is people want to be public intellectuals but publications do not give them the space because ideas, now in the media, are taken much less seriously than giving information. Nobody wants to have that place in the news media today for various economic reasons or various political reasons. I think that’s one of the issues. Second reason is that education has become so technological and vocational generally, the knowledge that you need for such debates is wider.
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(This story appears in the 25 March, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)