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Interrogating the Value of Humanities and the Arts in the Time of the Pandemic

Shirley Geok-lin Lim
University of California, Santa Barbara

The special issue for this inaugural publication of the International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies is timely for the entire planet, not just for the Asia Pacific region.1 Like everywhere else, the Asia Pacific territories are enduring an extreme existential spasm in the age of COVID-19. That the journal has invited contributors to speak (implicitly) in support of the Arts and Humanities in this moment of global upheaval, when the coronavirus pandemic continues to wreck human lives, economies, traditional ways of living, and the norms that regulate social exchange and relations, needs some unpacking. The pandemic’s challenge to systems of education in every nation is daily evident: the threats to the lives of pupils and teachers, students and faculty; the scramble to replace classroom pedagogy with remote/distance learning, and the class inequities—no longer deniable—these shifts expose; and the on-going anxieties of irrecuperable losses that will mark a 21st century younger generation. These are immense material problems that press on every community—scholars, teachers, parents, children, politicians, professionals and common citizenry.

The Humanities as a matrix of scholarly disciplines that has over at least five centuries legitimised institutions of higher learning form a significant site for the “creative destruction” the pandemic has wrecked seemingly in every human enterprise. Universities forced to undertake radical changes in modes of knowledge delivery in order to counter the pandemic’s spread must inevitably deal with rising questions from parents and students on the value of conventional areas of instruction in a world so chaotically and unpredictably destabilised. Merely repeating the usual defence of the Humanities disciplines, in retreat since the 1950s after the ascendency of the Sciences (today collectively gathered as STEM disciplines—Science, Technology, Economics and Mathematics), no longer suffices. As a scholar and creative writer who has been engaged with university teaching and administration for over four decades, this interrogation of the value of the Humanities is long overdue.

In the United States, a nation that historically has admitted practical, vocational and anti-intellectual tendencies, the Humanities have seen losses in financial support, student registration and prestige for a number of decades. Humanities departments have revised mission statements, changed curricular offerings, and more significantly shifted paradigms, as in the interdisciplinary dimensions and linkages now common in Humanities divisions. Nonetheless, even after the post-World-War 2 global collapse of Western colonialism, in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and California, five Pacific Rim territories in which I have had the privilege to study, teach, research and write, the Humanities have managed to maintain much of the prestige they possessed in the early 20th century.

The institutionalisation of the Humanities as knowledge based on the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment formed the ground for the rise of the universities in Europe, and the Humanities developed and established basic requirements for undergraduate studies under the rubric of “Western Civilisation.” There is little need to rehearse here the trajectory of Spinozian dualistic, bifurcated thought, instating the primacy of Logos, the Mind or Reason, over the subordinate dimension of the Body, i.e., Passion or the Irrational. This dualism operated to structure superior and inferior halves, e.g., Man and Woman, Mind and Body, Reason and Passion, White and Other, Colonial and Colonised, Citizen and Immigrant, and other value-loaded polarities. Postcolonial scholars, pre-eminently exampled in Edward Said’s theoretical and critical texts, have persuasively contested the racialised biases that not so subtly coloured the Humanities curricula taught in European-style tertiary institutions, and so worked to unravel the Enlightenment construction of “human” that through the perversions of European colonial exploitation ironically dehumanised Otherised peoples.2

The teaching of Humanities disciplines that have their origin in Western civilisation has shaped an academic discourse embedded in a discursive universe inextricable from Western pedagogical praxis; as Althusser (1971) might note, the Humanities is an aspect of regulatory ideological state apparatuses (whose initial node lies in the colonising West—Britain, Italy, Spain, United States, etc.)—to generate, support, protect, transmit and reproduce socio-political elite values separate from those of religious institutions. The “Humanities” as a related set of Western-values-loaded ideals/disciplines/arts, on the one hand, have unequivocally benefited peoples across time and space, uplifting much of humanity from nasty, short and brutish lives to social conditions that by the end of the 20th century saw growing areas of the globe where prosperity, longevity and other markers of human development increased. On the other hand, Western colonial systems of economic exploitation and predatory capitalism also have unequivocally damaged entire populations, as evidenced in the historical record of slavery and indentured labour, and the extinction of indigenous natives, cultures and languages.

My essay interrogates the Humanities even as their present pedagogical chaos might seem to call for defending their status. What, after all, is the good/purpose/place of the Humanities’ ideals, disciplines and praxis when so many of the norms that define humanity have disappeared or are threatened, when our common danger is paradoxically fraying global ties, bonds, dependencies, relationships, obligations and responsibilities that have for almost a century saved us from a third world war? Mina Karavanta and Nina Morgan’s chapter (2008, 324–353), rethinking humanism and the global hybrid (figured, as I have argued, in the Western-inflected Humanisties disciplines that form the praxis of educational institutions worldwide), maps the contradictions and tensions that are more and more evident in the practices and discourses of everyday life, surfacing wherever the West interacts with the rest of the planet; that is, in the vast liminal body of “the global hybrid.” They argue the “humanism” that originated in the philosophies associated with the Enlightenment has given rise to the construct of a “hyperreal” Europe, one which is embedded in the historical materiality of colonial evils and complex class/capital/manifold interlocking struggles and its opposing idealised Other of fraternity, equality and democracy. The Humanities’ current political concern re-energises textual and literary studies with a turn away from the identity politics of nationalism toward a global hybridity “[to] fashion a ‘different kind of humanism that…[is] cosmopolitan’” (Said 2004, 11). Opposed to this cosmopolitanism, Karavanta and Morgan pose Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist quasi-dismantling of Western logocentric philosophies as an instantiation of  “moments of undecidability” (2008, 335) demanding a reconstellating of critical studies to shake up Humanities disciplines.

The pandemic, underscoring the entire globe as single and vulnerable, vividly illumines the Humanities disciplines (literature, history, languages, linguistics, performing arts, art history, etc.) as inadequate in any continuance of identities of subjects as national, ethnic, gendered, individual and so on. Instead, arguably, the pandemic hails into consciousness what may be theorised as a hybridising global commonality. Border lockdowns only temporarily delay communal transmission in a nation. The globe is as safe from COVID-19 as its weakest territory. This science- and data-based fact shakes the foundations of the Humanities in their traditional formations, foundations that have persisted despite the totalising net of capitalism thrown in with European genocidal colonialism and postcolonial critiques of Western intellectual discursivity, the traumas of two world wars, the obliterating entry of the nuclear century, and the present Anthropocene epoch of climate change and mass extinctions. The Humanities’ Western-values bias for and valorisation of the individual over community may be more critically viewed through the lens of the different trajectories of the pandemic’s spread, as in the lower mortality rate for Asian nations that early adopted social practices to contain the virus versus the United States where an idealogy of individual freedom prevails and ensures the failure of mitigation of community transmission.3 More complexly, the Cartesian “I think, therefore I am” turn to Mind that has given us the successes of the Sciences has also more darkly generated the global dsytopic industrial conditions that have so degraded environments that humans appear hapless to counter catastrophic climate change. The Humanities that are complicit with the narrow values of Western individualistic freedom (“I think, therefore I am”), I argue, will do well to shift their paradigm to absorb the Africanist teleology of “Ubuntism,” a term that translates as “I am because we are,” to foreground principles of social interdependence and collective responsibility.4 Arguably, this Africanist ethos of “I am because we are,” inflecting the societies that have best mitigated the deadly spread of COVID-19, must also inflect 21st century Humanities in the age of pandemics, together simultaneously with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on Mind that undergirds the work of the Sciences.

The Humanities in Asia Pacific universities can only be intellectually strengthened by the destablising shakedown the pandemic is trending. In fact, towards the turn of the 21st century, the Humanities significantly embraced interdisciplinarity and cultural studies, acknowledging that their primary focus on texts and theories ignores and neglects dynamic synergies potent in creative work. English departments that were losing majors adopted popular Creative Writing programmes, broadening the overlap of the Arts  and the strongly archivalist endeavours of Humanities disciplines. Creative non-fiction, never mistaken for academic writing, is now almost universally accepted as a valued genre in literary studies. Parallel interdisciplinary changes explain the rise of Journalism departments and the present respect enjoyed by journalists, newspaper investigators and reporters. This overlap in the age of the pandemic, under conditions of lockdowns, is turbocharged by today’s major fast-evolving means of connection and communication. Social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, emails, etc.) have resulted in floods of creative art produced in self-isolation and circulated via mass communication.  That is, the pandemic arguably has hastened by decades tendencies that affect and redefine the Humanities AND the Arts.

Globally, locked-down and self-isolated people have fixed on televised/filmic news, clips, documentaries and more. Globally, people separated in space may be commonly informed by journalists’ reports and by first-person human stories of and from front-line and essential workers in hospitals, mortuaries, cemeteries, migrant camps and refugee cages, places once unimaginably foreign, and resorts and neighbourhoods that some may intimately recall. Interviews giving voice to abused women, elderly in care-homes, children orphaned by the virus, entire food-insecure communities on the cusp of starvation, everywhere COVID-19 has unequally devastated the planet—these images play in lockdown rooms and can be replayed at the touch of a button.

Even as these technologies enable the spread of toxic pandemic-associated conspiracies and disinformation, artists have seized these tools to produce and share writing, music, murals, graffiti, dance and all sorts of creative expressions in cyberspace. These 21st century social-media platforms in the age of pandemic “self-isolation” underline many humans’ desire and insistence for meaning, even as unemployment, social breakdown and spreading infections and deaths threaten to undo the meanings and values of our pre-pandemic lives. These “self-isolated” individuals’ desires for connection and solidarity are clearly a variation of “ubuntism—“I am because we are”—and in this crucial way, these arts are inextricably also the Humanities.  

At the same time, counter-intuitively, I view the poetry I write as an autonomous act whose vitality, I believe, persists as long as I persist in my humanity. Unlike my academic work in the Humanities, my poetry does not exist for me as an extant body of knowledge to be taught, examined and extended. My poems perform instead a search for value, for meaning. They create something out of nothing, see form which is not visible until discovered through the act of composition. Emily Dickinson famously noted that she knows it is poetry when she feels like the top of her head was taken off. Similarly, for me the value of poems lies in their intrinsic intensity of being, evidenced in their formal design—their aesthetics. Whether poets are creating in an age of health or sickness, of pandemics or herd immunity, their work’s value resides in the conviction of the art and not in the valuation of public readings, publishers and book buyers.

The poems I continue to write, almost sixty-five years after I first tried composing a poem at the age of ten, may well not be valuable to anyone but myself. If and when a reader finds signifying meaning in my poems, this Other has created his/her/their own value for the poems. It is this faith in the intrinsic value of poetry that produces my memory poems, as in these tracings of my Malacca homeland, childhood and Malaysian peddlers:

Before and After Leaving Malacca

Before and After: never
knew it as a child. Not that
exact phrase. Learned it
in the days that followed.
Each day remarkable
moments, nothing if not
alone, all presence
of streets reduced to
the incurious narrow
river meeting the salt
in slow sedimentation,
two hills, ruined walls,
tall standing tombstones
overwritten in a language
long foreign even then
in the lands from where
it had come. Foreign
in ancient hometown ruin,
inland waters’ slow
gullies, and Before
And After like single
days strung on present
absence—this mnemonic
whereby my lyrics are strung.
Convent Lessons
 
     Old nun of a piano teacher
rapped my wayward fingers
with a fierce-some wooden ruler,
stopped the music one hot afternoon.
     Giddy young art teacher,
smiling, knuckled my head,
dammed my flowing colors to red-
eyed teary smeary trickles.
     Bible Studies teacher
stood me on a high stool,
chalk in mouth and drip-drool
on blouse. Pushed me out the room
     to stand all day, children watching,
obedient. She turned my eyes
away from her ruled lies,
white on blackboard. Listen!
     The bad child beside who
pinched when I cried taught me
by the class door: Turn! See
your Muses, Poetry and Justice.
Value

Mongering had gone out of style:
fishmonger who’d tossed slippery flounder,
un-gutted, into my mother’s basket;
ironmonger who’d soldered our battered
pan with a fiery rod; my favorite
newspaper-monger who rang his bell
for the month’s old news, cents to the weight
carted away on his bicycle.
Today’s new mongers get into the news
with venerable gods—Fear, his troupe,
Rumor, War and Hate—borne into view,
traded hourly in our households, grouped
saviors for a souvenir picture,
branding with burning cross our world’s future.

However, when my poems thematise the problematic Present, they clearly draw upon the Humanities as source and resource for content. These two poems, delimiting the present of global warming and anonymity of social media, must be parsed in their shared liminal values with Humanities’ social criticism.

At the Supermarket

I get into my car
and drive to the supermarket
at the edge of recorded heat
to stare at ice creams—sugar
and milk, silvery crystals all
the way from elsewhere, from slow
cows, hormone-pumped pregnant.
Shivering in the aisles (fall
pre-set for the sun-stricken)
packed with humans, everywhere
packed with us, reaching, getting,
lining up, rows on rows, humans
quick to pride, mouth busy, face
wanting cool earth rare in a hot
planet, smiling at babies
welcomed to the human race.
Faceless

What Facebook cannot record:
the pleasure of being faceless,
an atom in the sunlight
that is an atom in a universe
that is an atom in the universality
of mysterious dust.
Under the ocean’s weight, crevices
un-glimpsable from Princess cruises
held up by the buoyancy
of the ocean’s water
that is the faith in all voyaging.
The faith in the crevice
within the body into which all
things fall, memories of milk,
olive pits and bitter
wine dregs, lees of buoyant years
deep in the hole the body holds.
Imagine the holes that pierce
each body, the crevices
under Facebook’s oceanic weight,
un-glimpsed selfies, invisible
posts, the possibilities
of being an atom, one atom
in a shining text that is one
atom in a universe that is
an atom in the universality
of mysterious dust.

A major overlap, addressed over the lifespan of my writing, between my poetry and Humanities’ extrinsic values lies in my fascination with the puzzle of language itself. My poetry returns again and again to the puzzle of what writing is, does, can and cannot do, makes, unmakes, cures. Metapoems such as these, I hope, have value for other obsessed writer-holics.

Poet’s Confession
 
I am a poet. I get everything
wrong. Love is actually pain may be love.
Today is always yesterday. Tomorrow,
too late, never comes. You are (prove
it!) seldom you, often mistaken for me,
who doesn’t know who I am, whose
existence is existentialist
doubtful. Life’s meaning’s also dubious,
essentially a question that’s hardly
questioned.
               Who gets it are not poets,
are whom a poet disdains like she disdains
grammar. Except when she needs it
for crafting meaning, some meaning, a few
meanings: a right and a wrong meaning,
except as I get everything wrong.
At least I’m right about that one thing.
Which is more than those who are not poets
can be graded for, who get even that wrong,
who figure they are right, righteous, never
wrong, guided by everything strong:
self or idea or profit or God, or blessed
by love. Ah, I grant them that happiness.
 
To Writing

Writing, that grew strangeness and love
of strangeness, sang together music
and noise unequal to my fixed
page’s choreography. She, basic
and first, grows weary, and I
am at a loss as how to physic
her. She has no appetite for Fancy’s sweets.
Lists of what’s forbidden lengthen
as she slips from the itinerary
I can’t put down, estranged, sullen.
Writing in Silence     

The poem writes in silence,
     silence not the mind
               chattering in the outer cold,
cold not the loneliness
               of years without a sound,
sound not the soot
               of fire long burned out,
soot not the muteness
               of women who’ve forgotten speech,
speech not the room you enter,
               blank squares where portraits were hung,
portraits not the poems
               hooded in silence,
although the poem writes in silence.

Finally, some moments arrive unasked, playing at play, content to be happy poems. I value these rare poems as everyone values what we cannot count on, that drops in when least expected, as in the Praise Song celebrating one consequence of the pandemic, the return of Nature’s wild animals as humans retreat into their homes. Such transcendent joy stays only for a moment, transience leaving its imprint of meaning to puzzle as a poem.

Praise Song for the Pause

Praise the morning fog
drying in the morning sun.
Praise the dry April streets’
absence of puddles.
Praise absence, the hustling
streets’ busy absent.
Praise the busy, the loud birds’
chittering play, hidden in leaves.
Praise the quiet snails, horns
hidden, persistent on adobe.
Praise the persisting outdoors’
feral cats and coyotes.
Praise the feral world,
suddenly unafraid.
What Comes After?

What comes after the chrysalis?
Perhaps sun and flight.
What comes after the butterfly?
Perhaps darkened light.
What comes after the dragonfly?
Perhaps perfect quiet.
What comes after lonely silence?
Perhaps new delight.
What comes after white spring blossom?
Perhaps purple plum.
What comes after years and losses?
Perhaps parts and sum.
What comes after a question asked?
Perhaps wisdom?
Moment

We all deserve a happy ending,
poor and rich, high-born and runty.
Paradise gleams with the early morning
bird pecking at grass seeds in a dry
patch, happy seed in the happy
beak, a moment of morning
happiness, seizing endings as ending.

NOTES

  1. My thanks to the Editor-in-Chief, Grace V.S. Chin for her invitation to contribute to this inaugural issue and for her editorial comments which have helped sharpen my commentary.
  2. Said’s (1978) critique of Western representations of the Middle East remains controversial, but has proven foundational in its influence on later postcolonial deconstructionist re-readings of European canonical literatures.
  3. EU and Scandinavian nations, unlike the USA, also managed to contain and mitigate the pandemic’s deadly spread, modelling a third ideological path balancing individual freedom with national security.
  4. “I am because we are,” or “humanity towards others,” is the translation of “Ubuntu,” a Nguni Bantu term meaning “humanity.” Philosophically “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity,” “Ubuntu” has become more widely known outside of Southern Africa after it was popularised in the 1980s and 1990s through Desmond Tutu’s theology that helped shape South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s policies. (Wikipedia, accessed 27 July 2020 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ubuntu)

REFERENCES

Althusser, L. 1971. Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In Lenin and philosophy and other essays, trans. Brewster, B. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Karavanta, M. and Morgan, N. 2008. ‘Another insistence’: Humanism and the aporia of community. In Edward Said and Jacques Derrida: Reconstellating humanism and the global hybrid, eds. Karavanta, M. and Morgan, N., 324–353. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Press.
Said, E. W. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.
____. 2004. Humanism and democratic criticism. New York: Columbia University Press.


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Professor Emerita at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), is an Asian/Transnational/American/U.S. Ethnic Studies and Creative Writing scholar who has served as Chair of Women’s Studies UCSB, and English Chair Professor at The University of Hong Kong. She’s received several awards, including Multiethnic Literatures of U.S. and Feminist Press Lifetime Achievement awards, and the Commonwealth Poetry Prize for Crossing the Peninsula (1980). Her memoir Among the White Moon Faces (1996) won the American Book award. She’s published ten poetry and three short story collections; two novels and a children’s novel; and edited numerous anthologies and critical texts.

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