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13 August 2017
CHCI: High Hopes For The Humanities Improvised

The Humanities Improvised: CHR Brings Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes To Africa

The humanities are a living subject, and if they are to remain vital, the relationship between art and the humanities needs periodic reconceptualization against the backdrop of rapidly changing world of work, politics and technology.

That was the purpose of the the 2017 annual meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centres and Institutes (CHCI), hosted by the Centre for Humanities Research (CHR) of the University of the Western Cape from 10 to 13 August 2017, and staged primarily at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.

This year’s meeting – the first in Africa – is themed The Humanities Improvised, and brought together hundreds of scholars, humanists, artists and thinkers from around the world seeking to “explore the multiple ways in which improvisation has enabled and facilitated the study of the humanities, not least in times of great social upheaval”.

In keeping with that objective, the meeting’s official opening ceremony kicked off with a performance by Reza Khota, artist-in-residence at the CHR, and celebrated South African guitarist Derek Gripper.

That performance embodied the aims of the meeting, as explained by CHCI president Sara Guyer, professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, where she also directs the Centre for the Humanities.

The organisation, she noted, had some years ago begun to look at how the practice and study of the humanities in Africa and other parts of the world beyond the strongholds of Europe and North America could engage in “a new form of conversation” – one that would, ultimately, be “transformative”.

Khota and Gripper’s performance in some ways illustrated this, Guyer observed.

The guitarists had shown how the kora music of the Mandé people of West Africa could be fused, almost seamlessly, into the western classical tradition, and in so doing transform the western repertoire.

“I some way, I do think that is the project that we’re all involved in,” Guyer said.

Then there’s the setting itself – the Castle of Good Hope, built between 1666 and 1679, known as the oldest surviving building in South Africa. Managed by the military, frequented daily by visitors and tourists, it is an uncomfortable monument to European colonialism, and an odd location in which to host a conference (there are no Wi-Fi services), much less one that seeks to thwart the remnants of colonialism.

“But for a true visionary, it is an allegory of the very possibility of the humanities,” added Guyer.”

One such visionary, she suggested, is Professor Premesh Lalu, Director of the CHR.

Prof Lalu started off by referring to some of the shortcomings of Area Studies (the study of specific geographical regions), the theme of the 2016 CHCI meeting in London. Area studies, he said, often reduced Africa to “mere referent and subordinate proposition” in a problematic global discourse.

The humanities, and African universities, need fresh impetus, Prof Lalu encouraged. Such a reframed humanities would not merely view institutions as extensions of a global information economy, but as a way to open the senses.

“The theme of improvisation,” he explained, alluding to Khota and Gripper’s opening performance, “was an opportunity to consider the humanities as an interplay of chance and composition.”

The context – Cape Town, and the hosts, UWC – provide further opportunity for intellectual exploration, said Prof Lalu. The University is founded on an ethos of hospitality, “of receiving the stranger and not competition and cut-throat careerism,” he noted.

What could be better suited to reorient universities to this ethos, he continued, than the humanities?

“The humanities,” he said, “are indispensable for teaching us how to deal with the political subjectivity of the migrant, of the excluded and marginalised.”

The Humanities In Action: In South Africa, And Beyond

The theme of humanities informing ethics and politics was echoed by Professor Tyrone Pretorius, UWC Rector and Vice-chancellor.

The humanities, he said, have a special place at the University, where the studies of the humanities had been encouraged by the apartheid government at the expense of studies in the sciences. That plan backfired on the government in spectacular fashion.

“It was those exact humanities that conscientised the students of the ‘70s and the ‘80s to protest against apartheid,” Prof Pretorus noted. By teaching students to examine art and literature and history and dream of better worlds, the government taught a generation of students to devote their hearts and minds to actually making that better world.

Increasingly, political intolerance is on the rise, and spaces for dialogue are narrowing. The humanities are key in reopening those spaces, and shaping the “lived experiences” of the university in the modern world.

“A vibrant study of the humanities is essential in post-apartheid South Africa as a means to tap into the promise of the newfound state,” said Pretorius. “But there are opportunities and challenges beyond the local. Today there is a global urgency to draw on the values of the humanities to effect change on a larger scale.”