Debjani Ganguly, “Keeping the Human Condition”

A week after I received a call from 4Humanities to add my voice to those of others about the work of humanities, plain and simple, my country of residence, Australia, came up with a solution — plain and simple — to stop rickety boats crossing the Indian ocean.

The boats have for months been carrying asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka. Hundreds died as the boats periodically capsized. Either a water grave, or an interminable wait in a queue in Malaysia to get legally processed. Two options for these desperate sea-farers. As a deterrent to what they saw as a meaningless loss of life, the three-member government committee led by a former army chief recommended the revival of the defunct and draconian “Pacific Solution” of the erstwhile neoliberal government led by Prime Minister John Howard.

Very simply, the intercepted boats would be sent to a Pacific outpost in Papua New Guinea or Nauru where the asylum seekers would be held indefinitely. No Malaysian queue for them. No queue ever to transition into a state of being that counted for something more than flotsam.

The boats, our policy makers hope, will simply stop coming and the public will be spared the horror of seeing ever more deaths at sea. If the people don’t see or hear, the problem would simply vanish.

Not the problem of refugees as a statistical abstraction, but the problem of an anxious confrontation with the violence of their own misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. After all, who are these boat people but the living dead from our own created deathworlds now come back to haunt our security obsessed enclaves?

In this current conjuncture, the humanities as I engage with it, plain and simple, advance where policy retreats. The excluded and the vulnerable, the illegible and the invisible are its forte. The humanities do not seek to quarantine them. Genres of expression imparting flesh and words to these are what some of us teach our students and even write about.

Warblogs, docufictions, memoirs, life narratives, novels, poems and films about the war-damaged and the famine-ridden — humanists tell their students — are counterfactual lens to see through the fogs of policy. Such insight requires courage and intellect, not just empathy.

Needless to say, we humanists also say that our labor does not end with merely seeing through something, exposing ideological biases, or developing yet another model of critique. We preserve records of previous habitations. We understand and assemble pasts, presents and futures anew. We imagine spaces and topographies before and after they acquire materiality. We discover facts, affects, metaphors and images. We are moved to transform mores and norms through deep reflection. We offer informed hope that humans have more in common than realist policy makers and strategists are willing to admit.

In short, humanists come pretty close to being the keepers of the human condition.

Debjani Ganguly is director of the Humanities Research Centre at Australian National University and also a professor of English and Postcolonial Studies at ANU. She writes and teaches about postcolonial literary and historical studies and comparative/world literatures in the era of globalization. Her current work focuses on literary globalism in the new millennium, especially on the post-1989 Anglophone world novel and its mediation of distant suffering in a hyperconnected information age. She is a member of the advisory board of the international Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes (CHCI).

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