Arts & Culture

Bhabha, matchmaker of disciplines

4 min read

Director of Humanities Center brings together diversity of scholars

Homi K. Bhabha is a marriage counselor of sorts — a literary scholar with a wide range of intellectual appetites whose role is to bring together a diversity of scholars.

“The humanities,” he said last month, “are a very critical part of developments in the sciences, technology, and the social sciences.”

Starting July 1, Bhabha – Harvard’s Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities – will be senior adviser on the humanities to the president and provost. The position is a first for Harvard.

The Oxford-educated scholar has already used his three years as director of the Harvard Humanities Center to accelerate dialogue between and among seemingly disparate disciplines. The center sponsored 42 events in the 2007-08 academic year — all of them variations on the same theme: conversation.

One signature offering is “20 Questions,” a lecturelike series that involves brief remarks by a Harvard (or visiting) scholar, writer, or artist — followed by intense interchange with up to a half-dozen respondents from the same or other academic worlds.

Another is a series of public conversations — just started this year — in collaboration with the Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.).

In May, about 120 lucky attendees at Zero Arrow Theatre listened in as Bhabha moderated a conversation involving a Shakespeare scholar (Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard’s Cogan University Professor of the Humanities), a playwright (Charles L. Mee), two theater scholars, and dramaturge Gideon Lester, A.R.T.’s acting artistic director.

For the coming year, the center plans new collaborations and public events that explore the intersection of the humanities at Harvard with the law, ethics, medicine, and museums.

Recently, Bhabha — a celebrated scholar of postcolonial literature and art — made some key observations about the humanities at Harvard and his new advisory role. Among them:

• “The sciences as a capital venture are much larger than the humanities. The sciences require new laboratories, new buildings, new machines. In the context of those of us who work with a pad and a pencil, humanists are sometimes seen to be out of touch with the times. But it’s very important to realize that the sciences and the social sciences really cannot fulfill their missions without being in conversation with the humanities.”

• “In the recent past, there was always a sense of crisis in the humanities. First there were the culture wars. Then there was the idea that the humanities were hostage to the politics of identity. Then there was the idea that the humanities were entirely ideological — whereas the sciences were more objective, and the social sciences were much more quantitative, and therefore much more dispassionate. But where there are large-scale transformations within society, the humanities have a major guiding role to play in the diverse conversations of mankind. They 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.”

• “At Harvard, there can sometimes be a lack of communication between divisions, departments, and Schools. But there is such great talent and power amongst our colleagues that to draw them together would be to everybody’s advantage. The humanities act as a crossroads across the campus.”

• “For the first year, my major task must be to listen attentively and closely to my colleagues. As humanities adviser I would like to be in very close touch with scholars and deans to begin to see how far humanistic issues have subtly spread in areas not commonly associated with the humanities.”

• “In keeping with the recommendations of the arts task force and in collaboration with [Harvard Dean for the Arts and Humanities] Diana Sorensen, I would very much like to see how we can bring the arts and the humanities together in the experience of our undergraduates.”