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The Role of Humanities Centres in Building a Global Humanities Future

Author: Professor Premesh Lalu - Director of UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research

Humanities centres are necessarily plural formations that are generally established to circumvent instrumental reason in the academy. They cannot and should not ever be reduced to a single idea or even a single disciplinary mode of inquiry.

(Published - 12 April 2019)

Humanities centres are necessarily plural formations that are generally established to circumvent instrumental reason in the academy. They cannot and should not ever be reduced to a single idea or even a single disciplinary mode of inquiry. The object of the humanities centre is to remain open to ideas in their vitality and to lend these ideas, collaboratively conceived, to the reformulation of the very grounds of always renewing the university.

The humanities centre accomplishes this by directing focused and inventive inquiry towards renewing the pedagogic projects of academic disciplines, considering emerging research themes and expanding the range of research questions. It also works towards developing a next generation of scholars, and enabling the university to find a footing in the world towards which it is also oriented.

This goal it realizes not only by way of organisational feat or individual academic leadership, but as an epistemic driver that eschews standpoints in the interests of itineraries of thought and elaboration of concepts. A humanities centre is at the very core of what it means to explore knowledge committed to the idea of freedom; while recognizing traditions of received wisdom, it pushes knowledge beyond inherited ideological presuppositions.

In the fourteen years since its establishment in 2006, the CHR (Centre for Humanities Research) accomplished its goal of giving new impetus to the experiments on building a post-apartheid future that defined the University of the Western Cape in the 1980s. This allowed it to reflect critically and affirmingly upon earlier debates about race and class, the university and anti-racist community struggles in South Africa.

Rather than casting itself as neutral and devoid of perspective, the CHR insisted on beginning with an inquiry into the very conditions that brought the university into being under apartheid. In place of assuming the role of diagnostician, it offered a space of working through but also working out its relation to this untenable inheritance. The centre provided a space in the university in which to think its way out of the legacies of apartheid and to think about what it means to be a university in Africa. This very specific inaugural conception defined the ethos that has governed the aesthetic and scholarly approaches of the CHR since its inception. It has guided its research, defined its local and international collaborations, enabled the selection of fellows and activated its relationship to a nascent post- apartheid public sphere. It was in this tone that the CHR emphasised that the humanities and an aesthetic education are central to the post apartheid remaking of the University of the Western Cape. Through the first reading programme of the CHR which considered Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land as its inaugural text, a series of questions about the archive, trans-hemispheric thought, subalternity, aesthetics and postcoloniality animated fellows as these relate to the problem of post-apartheid freedom. The reading groups and seminars, conferences and public lectures, exhibitions and performances, convened by the CHR have emerged as a major resource for post-graduate education in the humanities at UWC. This is a conversation that is global in reach.


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