Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard’s Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities, is known worldwide for his intellectual complexity. His diving-deep explorations of postcolonial culture are intricate. His many public talks are mellifluous and graceful, unwinding like a bolt of Indian silk.
But as director of the Humanities Center at Harvard, the India-born and Oxford-educated scholar offers a disarmingly simple message: Let’s talk.
Bhabha, a student of how disparate cultures richly intersect, has used his three years at the center’s helm to recast it as one of Harvard’s main cultural crossroads — a place where scholars of every stripe can pause, reflect, and exchange ideas.
He will soon have yet another way to deliver his message of intellectual togetherness. Bhabha has just been named senior adviser on the humanities to the president and provost. The position, a first for the University, takes effect July 1.
The new role also marks the moment in which the Humanities Center gets official status as a University-wide resource — one that comes under the umbrella of both the Faculty of Arts and Science and the central administration.
“The humanities have something to say to every part of the University, and there’s no one better than Homi Bhabha to get us talking and thinking about them in lively and imaginative ways,” said Harvard President Drew Faust, Lincoln Professor of History. “His new role will further encourage the stimulating conversations he has already begun through his energetic leadership of the Humanities Center — so that all of us, wherever we are at Harvard, can learn even more from all the humanities have to teach us.”
“Homi Bhabha is one of the great interdisciplinary figures at Harvard,” added Harvard Provost Steven E. Hyman, a one-time philosophy undergraduate who went on to a career in neuroscience and psychiatry. “As senior adviser, he will undoubtedly find exciting ways to support the humanities across the University and integrate them into a wide breadth of scholarship and teaching.”
Under Bhabha’s direction, the center is not only an invitation to talk, it’s an invitation to listen. For the culturally engaged in the Boston region, it offers dozens of events — 43 this year alone — that can properly be called public conversations on intersections of literature, the law, public policy, medicine, and more.
“The humanities have a major guiding role to play, and a major conversational role,” said Bhabha, who will spend his first advisory year continuing to develop wide-ranging initiatives at the center — and opening up energetic dialogues with colleagues from all corners of the University.
The humanities, he said, “raise very important issues: about the place of culture, the place of art, the place of ethics, the place of morality, the place of subjectivity — the place of the whole world of the imagination and of the emotions in private and public life.”
In any university setting, there can be a lack of communication among disciplines, he said. “But, manifestly, to draw them together would be to everyone’s advantage. The humanities is a crossroads.”
That meeting place has drawn wide praise.
“The astonishing vitality of the Humanities Center, under the leadership of Homi Bhabha, has been one of the most remarkable developments at Harvard in the years that I have taught here,” said Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard’s Cogan University Professor and chair of the University’s Arts Task Force.
“Almost overnight the humanities found a central voice in the University,” he said, “with an array of wonderfully well-conceived and well-attended occasions, from lunch-discussions with new faculty to a succession of brilliant lectures to the ‘20 Questions’ exchanges to such major public events as the tango conference and the ‘Age of Terror.’”
Reactions to Bhabha’s new appointment came from all corners of the University.
“No one more effectively embodies the face of the humanities in a 21st century, postmodern, cosmopolitan world than does Homi K. Bhabha,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. “Communitas is his trademark, as is elegance of thought and manner. All of us who love the humanities, past and present, can only applaud this appointment.”
Barbara J. Grosz, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study (itself an intellectual crossroads at the University), expressed delight for her “thought-provoking and spirited” friend, who is also the institute’s senior adviser in the humanities.
“He has helped to attract leading humanists to Radcliffe, and our lecture and conference programs have benefited greatly from his expertise and vision,” she said, citing last fall’s interdisciplinary conference “Tango! Dance the World Around: Global Transformations of Latin American Culture.” (It was co-sponsored by Radcliffe, the Humanities Center, and Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.)
“The humanities are central to understanding human experience — a goal of all universities,” said Grosz, Higgins Professor of Natural Sciences in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Dean for the Humanities Diana Sorensen said, “The vibrant intellectual work being done by Homi Bhabha at the Humanities Center will continue to energize all of Harvard, as he knits together the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the other Schools.” Sorensen is also the James F. Rothenberg Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures and professor of comparative literature.
“I am delighted about the new position that Homi is taking on,” said Nobel laureate in economics Amartya Sen, Harvard’s Lamont University Professor and professor of economics and philosophy. “He has brought about a huge transformation in the role and reach of the Humanities Center. It has become a very lively forum — significantly enriching the intellectual life of the University.”
Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, praised Bhabha for creating “an intellectual crossroads for the campus.”
Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of History, said Bhabha’s “creative spark … has lit up new ways of thinking across many disciplines — history, literature, art, architecture, philosophy and politics.”
Under Bhabha’s direction, said Bose, “the Humanities Center has become more global and ecumenical in scope.”
Harvard music scholar Kay Kaufman Shelemay said she was “delighted to learn that Homi Bhabha and the Humanities Center will play even more active roles in intellectual boundary crossing at Harvard.”
“This is very welcome news for everyone engaged in the humanities at Harvard,” she said. Shelemay, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, is G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and professor of African and African American studies.
Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Allan Brandt, who is professor of the history of science and Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine, said Bhabha’s interest in the humanities “spans all discourse and disciplines.”
One new Humanities Center initiative, a program in the medical humanities, he said, “will draw faculty and students in the arts and sciences into collaborations with the Medical School.” At issue, said Brandt, are “critical issues of health and disease, the science and technologies of medical care, and the fundamental moral and ethical questions of modern medicine.”
That new initiative will start this fall. But it was prefigured by a “Between Two Cultures” seminar in the fall of 2005, which brought the Humanities Center together with the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in a conversation, in part, about ethics.
“There are plenty of places [that science and the humanities] can’t come together,” said Humanities Center Executive Director Steven Biel, who is also a senior lecturer in history and literature. “Ethics is not only a place they can come together, but one where they ought to come together.”
The center’s “Age of Terror” series — which unfolded over the past year during a succession of “20 Questions” public conversations — spotlighted debates on public policy, law, and political philosophy, Biel said. “The idea is to come at something from as many perspectives as possible.”
More collaborative initiatives are in the works, said Biel, including a series on humanities and the law that will touch on the issues of mercy, dignity, the death penalty, and more.
That series of public conversations will also look at the intersection of the law, business, and medicine as disciplines whose main pedagogical engine is the case.
The Humanities Center is also in conversation with Harvard’s museums, Biel said, and will design an initiative to draw these cultural treasures into a wider conversation with the University community.
In all, said Greenblatt, “Bhabha has been an inspirational leader, not only with his unceasing conceptual inventiveness but also with his marvelous introductions, his unflagging social energy, and his intellectual intensity and breadth.”
At the news of the new appointment, he added, “I am personally thrilled.”