Arts & Culture

Yearlong search for the ‘human’ concludes with Bhabha address

3 min read

The series “Rethinking the Human,” a yearlong exploration of the very nature of what it means to be human, sponsored by the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions, concluded last week (May 12-13) with a two-day symposium.

Since fall 2007, the center has hosted a series of lectures, panel discussions, and film screenings to explore human nature, human values, human rights, and the limits of human experience. The series was also designed to investigate whether, as the conference program notes, “interreligious and intercultural conversations can have a positive effect on building human community and whether a pluralistic ethos can effectively transcend the uncompromising notions now current as to what is true, good, necessary, just and real.”

Throughout the year, scholars from a range of disciplines, including the social sciences, the humanities, and religious studies, contributed to the dialogue, examining the topic through a broad lens. On Monday, Homi Bhabha, Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and director of the Humanities Center, lent his unique perspective to the discussion. Bhabha, who was named by Newsweek one of “100 Americans for the Next Century,” delivered the keynote address in Andover Hall’s Sperry Room to a captivated crowd. His talk was titled “On the Barbaric Transmission of Cultures” and was drawn from a forthcoming book.

Using the examples of the current war in Iraq, his own experiences, and various reflections from literature, Bhabha explored the theme of barbarism and civility.

To begin, he cited the influential cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who, Bhabha said, saw the transmission of barbarism as both vexing and important.

There has to be a way of remembering barbarism, said Bhabha, not as a “sanctified, worked-through in the Freudian sense, ‘made safe’ issue. … There must be some affective way in which the transmission of barbarism brings with it some of the anxiety… the terror of barbarism; otherwise, there is no way in the representation of it of both confronting it and moving beyond it.”

He used the words of the late Susan Sontag to talk about barbarism and the war in Iraq.

“It is an endless war,” Sontag wrote, “because it is boundless, and borderless, a war that is being pushed past … the acceptable limits of international laws of war and its humanitarian conventions. … This endless global war on terrorism leads to dehumanization and demonization.’”

As a personal anecdote, Bhabha offered the story of his trip to Nuremberg, Germany, to see Hitler’s rally grounds and their empty, cracked concrete grandstand and stadium.

He stood, Bhabha said, “without any sense of how to behave, where to look, what truism of history or barbarism to utter.

“There is nothing — nothing — in the ethic of ameliorative witnessing, however sincere in its pursuit of human fairness … that prepares you today for the vacuum that such dispossessed cultural monuments create, the half-life of heritage, on the other side of which lies the death of human culture.”