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In defence of the humanities

By Niall Lucy - posted Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Early in 2002, as many as 5,000 Muslims in the northern Indian state of Gujarat were killed across a two-day rampage in the cities by armed mobs of Hindu fundamentalists. The reign of terror quickly spread to rural sectors, resulting in the regional displacement of some 150,000 Muslims and the destruction of more than 250 mosques.

Many have accused the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, a fierce advocate of Hindu nationalism, of fomenting hatred against Gujarat’s Muslim minority in the days leading up to the massacre, if not also of directly inciting the violence and arming the mobs.

According to American philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum’s latest book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, this event illustrates the need to understand democracy beyond the notion of an electoral system. The BJP may have been elected democratically, but the focus on technical training at the expense of critical thought in Gujarat’s education system shows how easily “a band of docile engineers can be welded into a murderous force to enact the most horrendously racist and antidemocratic policies”.


No doubt the massacre (some say, genocide) in northern India is attributable to multiple causes, but for Nussbaum it serves only to exemplify that state violence is a product of illiberal state education. Democracy, then, if it is to flourish, needs the liberal arts.

This rather facile account of atrocities in Gujarat (if only the Hindus had read more poetry at school, peace would surely have prevailed!) is underpinned by a rather facile understanding of the humanities as the fountainhead of our empathy for “others” with whom we share an essential human nature.

For Nussbaum, though, the humanities encompass little more than traditional approaches to the study of traditional subjects such as literature, philosophy and history, and in this conservative sense they function - unsurprisingly - to protect us no less from the evils of popular culture than from racial violence.

So popular culture is anti-democratic for promoting a morally unimaginative view of the world “by portraying the good characters’ problems as ended by the death of some ‘bad guys’”! Yet since clearly this does not describe the moral universe associated with TV shows of the order of Mad Men or Deadwood, say, the lack of imagination is surely all on Nussbaum’s side.

Consider her take on global conflicts (drawn, it would appear, from a profoundly thwarted imagination), which on her account emanate from a “very deep-seated human tendency” to think that “the world will be set right when some ugly and disgusting witch or monster is killed, or cooked in her own oven”!

Now while I’m not opposed, of course, to Nussbaum’s defence of the humanities per se, the problem with Not for Profit lies in the transcendental claim that the purpose of a humanities education is to make us aware of the human “soul”. There’s no place in Nussbaum’s humanities for cultural studies or postmodernism, then, because for her the humanities are all about the development of individuals’ moral psychology, and not their media or political citizenship.


She can’t see the humanities as a site potentially of fascist no less than of democratic thought.

The study of literature is not inherently democratic, which is why fascist regimes could take root in countries (Spain, Italy, Germany) with rich literary histories.

But since democracy figures in Nussbaum’s book as a kind of gas that is given off by the study of the human sciences, her defence of the humanities can’t account for nations that are steeped in culture and awash with blood.

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About the Author

Niall Lucy is a professor in the humanities at Curtin University. He hosts weekly music/culture show The Comfort Zone on 720 ABC Perth, Wednesdays @ 1.30pm. His latest book is Pomo Oz: Fear and Loathing Downunder (Fremantle Press). He co-edited Vagabond Holes: David McComb and The Triffids.

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